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A simple, low-cost way for nonprofits and foundations to curb the coronavirus crisis

By Sean Gibbons
April 2, 2020

Cell phone showing New York Times article, U.S. Now Has More Know Cases Than Any Other Country. A graph under the headline shows U.S. unemployment claims.
Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Reprinted from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

As the coronavirus spread endangers millions of lives around the globe, nonprofits and foundations are scrambling to find the best ways to help. We all have a lot to do, but the fastest, most efficient thing we can do now is to follow the lead of the global-health experts at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Staff members there like to say that when there is no vaccine, communications is a vaccine.

And that’s where the help of grantmakers and nonprofits can make a huge difference. I recently had a call with a friend at the National Institutes of Health who said that the agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health and government officials need a big boost from nonprofits and philanthropy to amplify their messages.

Here’s why:

We live in a crowded information space. On a normal day, it’s loud and dysfunctional. And this has been a series of exceptional days and weeks, with conflicting guidance and misinformation spreading fast.

Right now, it’s a mess.

But if we use the voices and influence of philanthropy and the nonprofit world to amplify credible medical and health experts, we could make a difference. Among the steps we can take:

  • Posting links to local health departments on the home pages of nonprofit and foundation websites, along with resources from NIH and CDC. Here’s what the California Health Care Foundation did to make this information easy to find.
  • Sending an email to grantees, clients, supporters, and others to help them find local government, CDC, and NIH resources.
  • Slowing down or halting nonessential external messages for now (think of this as akin to pulling over to get out of the way of an ambulance).

While all of these ideas can be done without spending precious time or money, we know some nonprofits are so strapped by the crisis that taking even these steps may seem like too much. We also know that some organizations have more creative ideas for how to spread the word but lack the design skills to carry them out. That’s why the Communications Network, the organization I lead, is collaborating with the global design firm IDEO to offer creative support to those groups, by elevating their needs to creative people seeking to achieve more social good. Organizations can share their needs here: ideo.in/SignalBoost.

If all of us involved in advancing the common good can take action now to strengthen the signal of our primary health institutions, it will help.

A recent NPR/PBS Marist poll bears this out: Doctors and health professionals are the most trusted sources of information. But a political divide in how (and where) folks are hearing information is, as ever, pushed by polarization.

And that’s why it’s so important that foundations and nonprofits do all they can to get the facts out.

poll conducted in recent days by the Cause & Social Influence Initiative found most young people in the United States are tuning out their social feeds and turning to traditional news media right now.

That’s a quantum shift.

And chances are, that's not just true for millennials, but for everyone.

The research also revealed that alongside local health authorities, foundations and nonprofits are among the organizations most trusted to do what’s right in the Covid-19 pandemic.

That makes it even more of an imperative for nonprofits and foundations to lend their voice, their networks, and their reputational capital (or as Judith Rodin and Neill Coleman put it during their days as Rockefeller Foundation leaders, their “influence endowment”) to help.

There are rough seas ahead.

This is a time for community cohesion, grace, and kindness.

Every foundation and nonprofit, no matter its mission, can help with the simple small action of boosting the signals and messages of the CDC, NIH, and local health departments. It just might save the lives of millions.

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Communication