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How CommonSpirit Health Developed a COVID Pandemic Messaging Toolkit in 5 Steps

Ifdy Perez
Published:  10/29/2020


I had the pleasure of speaking with Nancy Bussani, System Vice President of Strategy and Governance in Philanthropy at CommonSpirit Health, and Alice Ayres, CEO of AHP, about their experience as part of the Pandemic Task Force that started its work in May 2020.

Soon after COVID-19 brought nationwide lockdowns and social distancing protocols, Fred Najjar, Executive Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer at CommonSpirit Health, created an internal Pandemic Task Force to develop a system-wide approach for talking to donors about the system’s needs both at the national and the local levels.

The Task Force was a team of 11, made up of philanthropy leaders from the CommonSpirit Health’s national team and from some of the local markets. He tasked the group to consider the impact that COVID-19 would have on philanthropy, and asked them to plan for how we could redefine the work and develop a toolkit and resources for teams across CommonSpirit Health’s 83 fundraising entities.  

1.   Prepare for the Long-Haul

The Pandemic Task Force began meeting one hour every week, working on the burning question of how to keep new donors engaged––all the while assuming their plan would only need to focus on the next few months.

“In the beginning, we thought it would be a six-month Task Force with the belief that the pandemic would be over by then and we would go back to business as usual,” Nancy explained. They soon realized, however, that the pandemic wasn’t going to be short-lived. 

“Our plan was pretty straight-forward at the beginning. We looked at how to create appropriate case statements around COVID, and we strategized about how best to engage new donors for the long run. A few months later, when we realized this wouldn’t be over soon, we started considering different needs in our case statements––things like supporting caregiver resiliency, telehealth, mental health, and health equity.”

Nancy credits Fred for being instrumental in pivoting the Task Force’s focus. “He said, ‘While we need to handle the day-to-day, we also need to think a year from now. How do we support our team out in the field? That perspective took the Task Force from being just a thinking committee to an implementation committee.”

“I was impressed with the bravery of the Task Force to look at time horizons that seemed so far out,” added Alice, who was also part of the Pandemic Task Force.

2.   Run Goal-driven Meetings

In order for the Task Force’s goal to be reached as quickly and efficiently as possible, its members saw the importance of creating a framework for every meeting’s discussion ahead of time.

“The team did a phenomenal job running the meetings as working sessions, and making real progress between meetings,” Alice explained.

“Key leaders from across the system were invited to our meetings to share their experience and perspective on the things we were working on. This helped us develop a more meaningful case statement template, and act as emissaries from the donor to system leadership, and from system leadership back to the donors.”

3.   Find the Right Messaging

Developing the right messaging took the brunt of the work. The Task Force used resources such as the Edelman Trust Barometer to inform themselves on how the American public thinks.

“It was so clear from the Trust Barometer that people wanted to hear more from the clinicians rather than from the news or even government entities,” Alice said. “So the question for us became, ‘How do we use the trusted voices of the hospital’s administration and clinical leaders to deliver the right message to donors?’”

“Donors were asking us to tell them what we needed––so many people wanted to feel like they could help our hospitals and our care teams!” added Nancy. “A big question our task force members also wrestled with was, ‘How do we express our empathy and sensitivity in the right way for our long-time supporters who may be hurting right now?’”

Even with the resources the Task Force had at hand, crafting the right messaging took several iterations and testing from those on the ground.

“We started this process by naively saying, ‘What’s our message?’ Then we realized we had to reframe it for the different audiences––donors, clinicians, board members, etc.––so we worked with the national communications team to pull those key messages together,” Nancy explained.

“We had an iterative process where we would create a first draft, bring it back to the Task Force to critique and test in the field, and then they’d bring us feedback so we could improve.”

The Task Force wasn’t afraid to work through difficult messaging topics they knew their team needed to be prepared for. One was how to talk about the hospital’s financial needs to a donor in the midst of layoffs and the economic difficulty their community members were going through. Another was how to keep first-time COVID donors engaged with the hospital longer term.

While the philanthropy teams were talking frequently to donors, the Task Force saw that foundation CPOs needed to have similarly difficult conversations with their CEOs, to bring visibility and voice in talking about philanthropy’s role to help address the crisis.

“That is the silver lining throughout this,” Nancy said. “The value of philanthropy has been on display, helping to create positive outcomes in these hard times.”

4.   Track Performance

Executing an effective tool kit meant having the right performance metrics to measure up against, and iterating on it as new information and needs came up.

While they were prepared to see how many times the tool kit documents were accessed by staff, the biggest metric the Task Force looked at were the dollars that came in as a direct result of the messaging they created. From there, the philanthropy teams would track that donor and their development of a longer-term relationship with the foundation.

5.   Continue the Work

Now that the tool kit has been created, published, disseminated and being put to use, the Task Force’s initial project is mostly complete. So, what’s next?

“Now that we have six months under our belt, we’re in a better position to envision what the pandemic environment might look like for the next year,” Nancy said.

“We need to assess what the philanthropy teams will need for the next year and this includes our boards! We’re working hard to find tools to help our board directors stay connected to our foundations and our communities during the pandemic. We don’t want to put our work on hold, so we’re thinking about how we can create engaging and productive board meetings in this ‘new normal’.”

CommonSpirit Health is happy to share their Pandemic Tool Kit with the rest of the AHP Membership with the goal of helping fellow organizations in their own message development. If you’d like to view and documents and resources, please feel to contact Nancy Bussani with the CommonSpirit Health Task Force!

Meet The Author

Ifdy Perez
VP Marketing

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