By Zaiba Malik, director, Coppergate Communications.
A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page
The landscape for charities has rarely been a sunny one but it seems that as we head into winter, the triple threat of falling income, mounting costs and a surge in demand for services may bring dark days to many voluntary sector organisations.
Nobody wants to be the one who presses the stop button on any charity but if closure is the only option, a well-considered communications plan becomes vital.
Some of the main elements to focus on are:
1. Telling staff
A harsh blow can be softened by taking a human approach to informing staff about a potential closure. This includes providing context as to why this step is being taken, information on what the next stages are and using face-to-face or at least virtual engagement. With preparation and the input of HR, it’s often a good idea for the leadership to take questions at this stage even though the ability to respond fully may be limited. Demonstrating a desire to be open and visible at such a difficult time says a lot about an organisation that many will remember in calmer times.
2. Key stakeholders
It’s highly likely that, as soon as staff are aware of a potential closure, other key audiences will also be alerted. In advance of the announcement to staff, prepare a timeline of who needs to be told, by whom and what the messages are. For example, at what point does the Charity Commission need to be informed and what are the governance implications of that? At what point should the charity inform donors or stop accepting money? And what about letting volunteers know? Even for a small charity, there will be numerous stakeholders so a detailed communication plan that follows what the law, governance and best practice require will be a good investment of your time.
The impact of closure on those who the charity exists to help can be devastating. If possible, provide support and guidance on where else your beneficiaries can go to receive help. If there are other organisations with a similar remit, think about when it would be an appropriate time to make them aware there may be an additional requirement on their services so they can start to prepare for this.
4. Media and social media
Controlling the message at a difficult time is not impossible. It’s essential to prepare statements in case there’s a leak. If there’s an opportunity to talk to journalists, consider what you can and need to share and who will be the spokesperson. Social media can be a valuable way of communicating directly with key stakeholders and letting many audiences know why closure is happening and what it means for staff and beneficiaries. It’s worth spending time on the language and tone so everything reads ‘human’.
In addition to making sure that empathy and concern are at the forefront of all communications, ensure there’s consistency in what you’re saying across the board. It will do your credibility no good if you say one thing to your staff and then contradict that in a media interview.
Faced with the stress of closure, planning communications may not be at the top of your priorities, but it can make all the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘poor’ ending.