If there is one goal on the mind of every nonprofit communicator, it’s building connection across social distance in the time of COVID-19.

Connection doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. It requires different channels, messages and objectives. Our individual needs for connection evolves over time, too. But for organizations and businesses to remain relevant and useful to those they serve, connection is key.

Periscope or Fire Hose?

When sheltering in place all started, my prevailing impulse was to reach out to anyone and everyone in my social sphere to check in and see how they were doing. It was the same vibe I imagine happens when a neighborhood is awoken at 2 a.m. by the lights and sirens of a firetruck–everyone standing in their bathrobes and talking to each other about what’s happening. I was desperate to hear how everyone was handling things and equally desperate to share my own experience. I even started a podcast to chronicle this time.

A couple of weeks in, after numerous virtual hangouts with people I keep in close touch with and with people I haven’t spoken to in a long time, that feeling wore off. Social media felt less like a periscope into the wider world and more like a fire hose of raw sewage I was letting into my life. I withdrew.

And when I started to feel isolated again, I peeked my head back out and sent out a few messages to check in with the people who matter most to me.

Lather, rinse repeat.

At least for me, this is what quarantine fatigue has felt like. The rising and receding tides of loneliness that influence my desire for connection.

Now that extended social distancing seems like our new reality, communicators need to identify the best ways to build, sustain and grow connections with stakeholders across the board, on terms that work for them.

What’s Working for Me: Building Connection Across Social Distance

We all have our personal preferences for sustaining connections right now. But as work and home bleed together into one endless loop, communicators may struggle to keep up the momentum professionally when you’re totally Zoomed out and sick of seeing the same generic “We’re here for you” marketing emails in your own inbox.

I totally feel you.

But it’s still our job to find meaningful ways of building connection across social distance. It matters to our missions in the long run. And in many cases, our teams and audiences need this connection more than ever.

Here’s what’s been working for me, both in staying connected to clients and colleagues, and helping clients stay connected to their employees, donors, volunteers, clients, patients, etc.

Mixed Media

Consider your goal: Are you simply informing/providing an update? Asking for input? Creating an environment for catching up and chatting? Needing to discuss something with a lot of nuance?

The answer to that question will help influence the best way to facilitate a connection. For updates and resources, consider Seth Godin’s approach to the “bulletin board” vs. bulletins. People will be grateful to get their information on-demand instead of having to show up at a certain time.

This applies to your website and always-accessible content for public updates, and also your one-on-one communications. If you’re doing an info dump, consider an email that someone can address on their own schedule, versus having to slog through a slack chat or text message chain.

Take advantage of online survey tools to gather opinions when they’re straightforward. If you’re scheduling something, create a Doodle or a poll instead of kicking off a reply-all avalanche of “I can’t do 4:00. Would 3:30 work?”s.

Consider an email or blog series if you want to explain something complex to your audience. This way, they can return and reference it whenever necessary.

Even if you’re sharing something complex, you don’t always have to go right to a live video call. For example, Loom is a great tool to add commentary to a proposal or complex edits. It’s a free online tool that allows you to record your screen (with or without a video of your face). In addition to proposals and edits, it can be a great training tool.

When and How Video Calls Work Best

Video calls serve an incredibly valuable function when in-person meetings are impossible and on-demand communications aren’t enough.

Pro tip: Don’t take your computer to the bathroom during a video call.

They allow us to see facial expressions and to connect in ways that text, audio, and pre-recorded video don’t. But remember that many people feel “Zoomed out.” Others are juggling child care and Internet bandwidth on multiple streaming activities. Others still aren’t tech savvy or comfortable on video calls. So be judicious. Save Zoom for the “facilitating community” and “discussing nuanced and complex topics” goals.

I’ve been loving video calls for one-on-one client check-ins and small meetings. The conversation can still flow pretty naturally and we tend not to interrupt too much.

With one of my clients, we’re using Zoom and the record function to interview stakeholders about their recent experiences. The versatility of the tool means we can use their interviews across a number of channels. This might include written content adapted from the interviews, podcasts and videos for social sharing. The interviews themselves are also nurturing the connections that otherwise might suffer. They are giving stakeholders a chance to reflect on what matters to them, how the organization is supporting them and what common challenges we’re facing.

Some video meetings, by nature, require a much larger group of participants. The challenge with larger groups is that whoever is speaking “holds court” for whatever time they’re talking. It can be really hard to jump in and engage.

Connect Better in Big Groups

If you’re facilitating a larger-audience meeting, be sure to familiarize yourself with the tools that can mitigate the interruptions, steamrolling and other frustrations:

  • Mute everyone who isn’t talking when a presentation is happening.
  • Use the “raise hand” function to give people opportunities to contribute.
  • Open up the chat function so those who may not be able to verbally chime in can still contribute.
  • Stick to an agenda and facilitate good meeting flow.
  • Consider Instagram Live or Facebook Live if you’d rather preserve your role as the main speaker and host while still allowing people to submit questions and share feedback.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. Stay well, stay safe, stay home if you can, and stay in touch. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or ideas to share, or if you need help with your organization’s communications.

Featured photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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