How to Handle Bad Press and Get Back on Track

4 min
bad press for nonprofits
Contributing Author

Charitable giving in the United States rocketed to an all-time high of $410 billion in 2017 with individual donations accounting for 70 percent of all contributions. Despite a dependable increase in donations nearly every year, not all charities see an equal benefit from America’s generosity. While many factors affect nonprofit fundraising, none are as financially toxic as negative press.

How Bad Press Affects Nonprofits

Maintaining public trust is one of the most critical components of nonprofit fundraising. When a scandal damages this trust, donors react by closing their wallets. Individuals fear the mismanagement of their donations, and corporations seek to distance themselves from a public relations crisis.

Unfortunately, the fallout isn’t limited to the offending organization. According to Pamela Barden, a Direct Response fundraising strategist, “We all take some hits when another nonprofit organization is maligned.” Barden adds that even if the accusations were inaccurate, the organization’s reputation—and the entire segment—is impacted.

Negative media coverage has the power to seriously impact annual donations forcing layoffs and cuts to programs. In the worst cases, organizations may even be forced to close their doors permanently.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is a well-known example of bad press taking down a nonprofit. ACORN was a collection of community-based organizations working to improve neighborhood safety, health care, voter registration, and affordable housing for low-income Americans. At one point, the organization held 500,000 members across its 1,200 chapters around the world.

Scandal shook the nonprofit in 2009 when videos were leaked showing ACORN employees allegedly learning how to hide prostitution activities and avoid taxes. The legitimacy of the videos was called into question by members who claimed it was a conservative media setup, but the damage was already done. ACORN’s lack of response coupled with a serious erosion of public trust crippled the charity’s ability to raise capital and led to a loss of government and private funding. The nonprofit was forced to close its doors soon after.

Charities can be considered more vulnerable to negative media coverage than for-profit businesses because people trust them to do what’s right. Many might be quick to forget a scandal involving a coffee shop, but a breach of trust involving a nonprofit might take longer to heal. While rebuilding a damaged reputation requires a significant investment of time and resources, the lost revenue due to bad press carries an even heftier price tag.

Powerful Reputation Repair Tactics

Once the media storm has passed it’s time to begin cleaning up your nonprofit’s reputation. Negative articles could rank well for your brand’s name in Google long after news outlets have moved on from the story. Your crisis could also resurface in roundup articles about nonprofit public relations disasters which could crop up at any time.

To repair your reputation and protect it from future problems you’ll need to aggressively rewrite your digital story. Here are the top tactics from our crisis management guide to improve your online reputation:

1.   Issue a Statement

The press may have moved on from the story, but you’ll need to rebuild your relationship with your supporters before you resume fundraising activities.

The best way to earn back their trust is to be transparent about what caused the crisis. Show accountability for your organization’s actions and provide details about what you’re doing to prevent the incident from occurring again. Use this opportunity to express sympathy to those who were impacted and assure supporters and beneficiaries that you are committed to your mission.

While your primary statement should be in video format to convey your organization’s humanity, it’s also important to have a written statement posted on your website. Pin your video to social profiles and place it prominently on your website homepage to provide closure. There’s no hard rule for how long to display these statements, but 30 days is a good rule of thumb to ensure the message is received by your supporters.

Read Next: Communications Strategy for Nonprofits

2.   Refocus Your Messaging

Large organizations with many chapters may have disjointed messaging with a strong focus on separate local projects. This could make it harder to tell a unified story about your brand. Clarify your charity’s core mission and values across all chapters to send a powerful signal to Google about what your organization stands for.

Individual chapters can, and should, continue to promote positive community impact at the local level, but they must also work to promote and reinforce the overall global mission of the organization.

While smaller nonprofits don’t have to deal with separate chapters, they should still ensure that their messaging is consistent across their advertising materials. Slogans, mission statements, and business initiatives should be unified whether broadcast on the radio, printed on mailers, or published on your website.

Read Next: 10 PR Strategies for Nonprofits [INFOGRAPHIC]

3.   Build a Digital Fortress

Take inventory of all existing web assets, including blogs, chapter websites, and social media. Claim any social profiles that may be missing. While you may have already set up Facebook and Twitter, there are hundreds of other niche social networks you may have overlooked—and which could be a valuable means of communicating with your audience. More importantly, if you don’t register a profile with the name of your organization, someone else may create a spoof account using your name.

Once you’ve created accounts on each social network you plan to use, update your messaging across all of your properties for consistency. This sends a strong message to your followers (as well as search engines) that the account is authentic and can be trusted.

One strong advantage held by large nonprofits is the vast number of chapter websites controlled by the parent organization. For example, a search for “United Way” returns results for many local chapters which allows the organization to showcase its positive mission and guard against future negative articles. Keep chapter websites updated with fresh content and consistent messaging to help to push negative content out of your branded search results.

4.   Leverage Your Relationships

Don’t limit yourself to promoting your organization on websites that you own. Look for opportunities among existing sponsors and corporate partners to broadcast your message.

Corporations love to showcase their philanthropy, so reach out frequently to your corporate sponsors’ public relations team, marketing department, and content writers and provide them with details about how their company’s generosity is furthering your charity’s mission.

Free Download: Pocket Guide to Online Fundraising

5.   Diversify Your Search Landscape

Repairing and protecting your online reputation isn’t just about publishing articles and posting on social media. To build a robust search landscape, ensure diversity among the type of search results that reference your brand.

  • Video: Merely having video content on your website or blog will help your search rank because rich media (like video) indicates to search engines that you share high-quality content. What’s more is that it’s an excellent way for nonprofits to make a human connection while showcasing the impact of community projects. You can use video to promote upcoming events, live stream your team reactions when you hit fundraising milestones, or even share interviews with beneficiaries or volunteers.
  • Radio: It may seem like radio interviews wouldn’t influence your internet search results, but most stations provide a brief summary, transcript, or recording of the interview on their website with a mention of your organization. These are excellent ways to diversify your digital profile because they often include an audio clip, and they can even be featured on Google News.
  • Images: Similar to video, images hold high value in the world of search engine optimization (SEO). Visual content is also engaging for the audience, easy to share, and more memorable than a block of text. Share photographs of fundraising events, pictures of community projects, or a well-designed infographic about how donations are used within your organization.

6.   Promote Your Cause

Traditional public relations efforts like press releases, media pitches, and guest posts are also excellent methods to improve the narrative around your organization.

Press release distribution services can quickly broadcast your message across hundreds or even thousands of affiliated networks. Beyond amplifying the message you want shared, other websites and media outlets could pick up the story and write their own positive articles about your mission.

Securing local or national television exposure combines several of the above benefits. You get the expanded reach of syndicated press releases, the powerful human connection of video, and the possibility of transcriptions or summaries on station websites that can be crawled by Google.

Remember: It Takes Time

Reputation repair isn’t a quick and easy fix. It’s a long-term commitment that requires diligent planning, an investment of time, and proper management. As Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” While it won’t take another 20 years to rebuild what was damaged, it will take time and the right plan.

If you’re uncertain about where to begin, pick the low hanging fruit first. Draft new messaging that showcases your organization’s positive community impact and ensure that all chapters are informed of the updates. Then, share these personal stories with your local media and across your social platforms to start generating some positive press.


Jonas Sickler is an expert in crisis communications and online reputation management. His advice has been featured in over 60 publications, including Forbes, Washington Post, CNBC, The Street, U.S. News, and Business News Daily. Follow along on Twitter.

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