(Six lessons on how corporate philanthropies can strengthen community connection and communications.)
Those who work in philanthropy are likely familiar with crisis response and management. But when we in the sector are also directly affected by that crisis while working to respond to it, the fullness of the impact comes into even greater focus. When COVID-19 first emerged in China in the final months of 2019, the Medtronic Foundation rapidly responded to immediate needs on the ground. But as COVID-19 crossed borders, the pandemic raised the stakes for communities, first responders, and philanthropists worldwide.
Unfortunately, just as we started to adjust to life in a COVID-19 world, we were faced with more shattering news. George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Communities were left reeling, not only from Floyd’s death, but also from the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. These tragedies forced a nationwide reckoning, and the affected cities had to face an important reality: We allowed racism to go unchecked, while many of our own neighbours suffered. As protesters marched in the streets, we realized we had a responsibility as leaders in our community and as those driving global change to do more.
The community members and health workers most affected by these events have been on the front lines, entrenched in fighting global and national emergencies on two fronts. In this article, we share an inside look at what it is like to experience a crisis while attempting to deliver critical communications and on-the-ground support to communities locally and globally.
Medtronic Foundation’s focus is on improving health for the underserved and supporting communities where Medtronic employees live. COVID-19 and systemic racism are affecting many of these same communities, and we felt a responsibility to help them chart a path forward. Communities wanted to be heard and people hungered for information and support. Outreach and humility in listening and learning quickly rose to the top of our responses.
As community needs from food and shelter to cleaning supplies and protective equipment increased exponentially, it became apparent that we had to implement a strategy that addressed these needs on a number of fronts. The Medtronic Foundation made a conscious decision to extend greater support to non-profit organizations providing for basic needs, in addition to help ensure small business resilience and to provide general operating support for non-profit organizations serving people of colour who are hardest hit by both COVID-19 and systemic racism.
To do this, we partnered with our colleagues in local cities around the country and globally to better understand which non-profit partners are cornerstones in their community. We also engaged national partners like the United Way and Feeding America to inform us about the needs their affiliates were seeing. All of this information helped us to formulate a plan to address the needs with precision and urgency.
Many of the Medtronic Foundation’s long-term partners required emergency support to continue to provide their core services, in addition to addressing new, immediate challenges in their communities. For example, the Minneapolis-based social services organization Pillsbury United Communities recognized the urgency to support basic services like emergency income and food distribution, as well as a new need to provide education on COVID-19 prevention measures like social distancing. At the same time, the non-profit’s revenues dropped as face-to-face programs were put on hold, and contributions from individuals and corporations slowed. Another Medtronic Foundation partner, Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES), a St. Paul, Minnesota-based non-profit supporting underserved Latino families, needed rapid support in setting up Spanish-language hotlines for clients affected by the pandemic, along with bilingual telehealth options and case management.
While corporate philanthropies can target funding in ways that support the goals of frontline organizations, they don’t have the same on-the-ground experience within these communities that non-profits themselves have. Therefore, it has been important for us to partner with leaders in the communities we support to identify gaps and provide support.
Using existing relationships, the Medtronic Foundation identified non-profit partners that could help us target our dollars to the underserved populations who needed funding most, significantly reducing our usual six-to-nine-month grantmaking process down to just six weeks. For example, in Boulder, Colorado, we partnered with the Boulder Community Foundation to assess needs in the area and identify the groups that were in the best position to provide solutions.
In total, the Medtronic Foundation was able to support 40 new non-profit partners in 2020. Our partners led the way in mobilizing local support and relief efforts. Since the pandemic began, we’ve helped more than 1.4 million people in the United States find food and shelter, and we’ve helped our partners distribute 24 million pounds of food. We also connected Medtronic employees to hundreds of volunteer opportunities that allowed them to give back in their own communities in ways that were meaningful to them.
Lessons From the Ground
From the Medtronic Foundation’s on-the-ground response, we identified six actions essential for philanthropies to consider as they respond to crises.
Be visible | Leaders need to be seen and be ready to listen. Don’t wait until you have all the answers when a crisis occurs, people need immediate help and philanthropies must rise to the challenge. Your involvement and response will be critical to maintain the trust you have earned both with long-time non-profit partners and the communities you serve. That means acting quickly to support organizations on the ground and communicating your response just as rapidly as it is happening, so people know and understand exactly what actions you are taking and how they can help.
Be clear, direct, and thorough | A crisis is not the time for lengthy key messages. Instead, look for ways to simplify your message, communicate it clearly, and speak from the heart. Marketing experts often talk about user experience, and at no time is there such a requirement to focus on how “end users” experience your communications than during a crisis. Those end users and your audience may vary from employees to social justice and global health leaders. Balance clarity and speed while staying true to your mission and goals.
Be aware of differing experiences | People react differently in crisis. When it comes to COVID-19, some people are eager to make charitable contributions or find a way to volunteer, while others are facing new financial hardships due to changes in the economy or directly experiencing COVID-19, either personally or through a loved one. According to Pew Research Center survey in March 2020, “nearly 9 in 10 US adults say their personal life has changed at least a little bit as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, with 44 percent saying their life has changed in a major way.” In your communications and community response, be considerate of these varying experiences and ensure actions are inclusive of a wide spectrum of situations and emotions.
Be nimble while maintaining commitments | Organizations around the world have shifted their activities online, and that includes volunteering. For philanthropies and non-profits looking for ways to engage volunteers, consider ways to make the experience easier, such as a one-stop resource on your website or a “virtual volunteer power hour” to engage many volunteers at the same time. Opportunities like these allow you to meet the pace of change in these times and stay true to who you are.
Be a good community steward | No single organization can address these crises alone. Corporate philanthropy plays an important role in ensuring communities manage through the storms and reach the underserved. Philanthropies can provide tools, resources, and skills to rapidly respond. But no one is more prepared and equipped to respond than the non-profits on the front lines who serve their communities every day.
Be sure that your focus on community is not only evident in your approach to partnerships and programming, but also in your approach to internal and external storytelling. Create a sense of community and shared experience among your audiences, and adapt your communications to lift up the ways in which people embrace collective action at a global and local scale. For example, through a virtual meeting, we were able to bring the stories of our non-profit partners to Medtronic employees in an inspirational way. Medtronic employees have a personal stake, and close-to-home experience, with the crises we’re facing today. This meeting allowed them to learn how our investments are directly reaching community organizations, explore how to play a part in our efforts, and most importantly, listen to the stories of the real heroes who are reaching the underserved.
Be thoughtful about your long-term impact | For philanthropies moving quickly, ensure that programs you support will create a long-term effect on the people you serve. Things shouldn’t return to normal after a global crisis like COVID-19. Rather, we have an opportunity to build safe, strong, equitable, diverse, resilient, and inclusive communities. Those on the front lines must overcome the challenges before us, but our global community also must grow stronger in the days ahead. Even in the midst of a crisis, ensure specific outcomes are in place to measure short-term impact and that non-profit organizations you partner with are equipped to continue to provide results in the future.
How Crisis Shapes Us
The way an organization leads and reflects its values in its response to crises is a litmus test of its core mission and can build or shatter trust. In one moment, all the hard work you put in day-to-day to advance your objectives can dissolve. Our personal experiences while in the midst of crisis changed our approach to communications and community engagement, and it gave a deeper perspective on what really matters. It is because of those experiences that the Medtronic Foundation was able to create a response that will shape our reputation, and most importantly, our ability to drive meaningful change long into the future.
Allison Frailich, former Communications Director for the Medtronic Foundation; now Global Director in the Medtronic Corporate Communications Department.
Liz Lund, Director of Strategic Operations and Community Investment for the Medtronic Foundation.