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How to Rebuild Public Trust Amidst the Negative Organizational Effects of COVID-19

for executive directors marketing and communications Jan 26, 2021

Every nonprofit I know has suffered greatly under COVID-19. As revenues declined and expenses went up, many nonprofits have had to reduce services. There may be people who were getting services who aren’t now. Or people aren’t receiving the same level of services as they did before. If there have been layoffs, staff may feel insecure and project an air of negativity. As a result, clients may experience poor customer service or perceive that they do because of a stressed out and depressing atmosphere.  Truly, nonprofits are suffering. And as a result, so is the public.

What happens when the public starts perceiving your agency as a poor shadow of what it was? While people may not have lost trust in nonprofits in general, their experience with yours may erode their trust in your specific organization. You can combat the lack of trust, though, acting in concert with your stated mission, vision, and values.

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Send Consistent Messages

Consistent messages form public opinion. If you are to overcome a bad image, you must send consistently positive messages about your organization that are backed up by your actions. One of the most effective ways to articulate and communicate a consistent message about who your nonprofit is and what it stands for is through branding. This means more than just the appeal of your logo. Branding encompasses the totality of the public experience with your agency. 

Visually, what colors do you use to communicate who you are? What about your font? What type of photography best depicts your nonprofit’s personality and character? Do you use the colors, fonts, and picture-type consistently on your website, letterhead, newsletter masts, annual reports, and other promotional materials? If you haven’t branded your agency to that level, you might want to find a branding expert or firm to help you, either on a paid or volunteer basis.

Branding also includes the words that you use. A messaging playbook is very helpful for this. A messaging playbook helps everyone involved in your nonprofit communicate the same message. It takes work though. It means that all your internal materials, like your website, strategic plan, communications plan, case for support and training materials, all have the same words and concepts in them. All the speeches that you, board, staff, or volunteers give need to have the same underlying core words that describe who you nonprofit is and what it stands for. As do all your press releases, email and text campaigns, social media posts, and advocacy campaigns. The same is true of your fundraising efforts. The verbiage in your case for support needs to be consistent with your overall messaging. As do all the fundraising materials derived from your case for support, like grants and appeal letters.

And teach your staff and board to advocate for you and be organizational ambassadors. Teach them how to use the messaging play book when they talk about your nonprofit. Staff see your mission in action every day. Your board members are passionate about your mission. Use their experience and passion to extend your message to the community. Just make sure everyone knows that one core message to send.

Become a Mission Hawk

Your basic messaging, however, is not rooted in how great your nonprofit is. It is rooted in your mission. It is mission impact that motivates people to support your cause, not how great your organization is or how much you need their backing.

Which means choosing to implement and participate in public activities that are related to your mission. Your actions speak louder than your words. So, obviously, engage only in public meetings, committees, and planning groups that support your mission. Maybe not so obvious is the fundraising activities you choose to implement. Fundraising, at its root, is not about raising money. It’s about garnering resources to implement mission. Fundraising activities are just as much as much about promoting mission as they are about raising money. Let your mission determine what grants and government contract you go after. Let mission determine the special events you host. Make sure there is no doubt in anything that you do who your nonprofit is and what it stands for.

Communicate Your Vision

If your messaging is all about mission, your vision is all about communication and motivation. If your nonprofit has lost public trust, a good way to change perceptions is to reiterate your vision and let people become part of it. Acknowledge public perceptions, whatever they are. And tell the community how you will overcome your problems, how you will meet your vision. Give the public hope that things will get better. Let them know that this too shall pass, sooner or later.

Live Your Values

During times of extreme and prolonged stress, like an extended worldwide pandemic, nonprofits show their character by the decisions they make in getting through and moving forward. Organizational values may be tested. It is important that you live and by your stated values. Which means partnering with other organizations that that share your values. And choosing fundraising activities that are consistent with your values. Avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in the tough decisions you face. Again, actions speak louder than words. Show the public that you can be trusted.

Wrapping It Up

If you are facing a situation where public trust in your nonprofit has eroded, you can get that trust back. Live by your values when faced with the hard choices. Choose partners that share your values. Consider getting professional help in articulating your brand throughout the total public experience of interacting with you. Base your messaging on your mission. Choose activities, even fundraising ones, that promote your mission and increase its impact. Teach staff and board to be ambassadors for you. Let the community know who your nonprofit is and what it stands for. Be consistent. Over time, you will restore public trust in your agency.

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