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Avi Kaplan 6 min read

How to Share Bad News with Your Supporters and Keep Your Choir Engaged

You look forward to sharing victories with your community. Who wouldn’t? A big win offers a jolt of enthusiasm and shows that your hard work is paying off.

As any seasoned campaigner knows though, advocacy work isn’t always smoothe sailing. You are bound to hit patches of rough water. The way you address these challenges and how you share bad news with your community are critical to the long-term health and strength of your movement.

Maybe you lose the vote. Your efforts to turn the vote of a key legislator fail to bring them to your side. Your capital campaign comes up short and now you are facing a budget shortfall and some tough decisions. The court rules in your opponent’s favor. Even worse, an employee steals from your endowment, and Bernie Maddoff makes off with all your investments!

Bad news bears. 

Now you need people’s trust and help more than ever. How do you break bad news to your supporters and still maintain their confidence despite disappointment?

Be Honest

A loss is a loss. When you encounter a major setback, don’t try to spin it as a win. You aren’t fooling anyone. Staff, volunteers, activists, board members, and supporters, all need a chance to lick their wounds and process the bad news. Don’t jump to exaggerate a silver lining or understate the severity of the situation.

If the bad news is a result of your own mistake, for heavens sake, take candid responsibility for the misstep and explain how you will prevent it from happening again.

Celebrate What You’ve Learned

Embrace the failure for the learning opportunity it provides. You may have lost this battle, but if you adopt the right attitude and reflect on the experience, your movement will come out stronger. Sharing that spark of optimism can renew your community’s hope for the future and make them more determined than ever to help you prevail.

Double Down with Inspiration

Reaffirm Your commitment to the cause. Show your community that you are taking a long view. Achieving advocacy goals can be a slow process, but you are going to see it through. Frame the case again in terms of the alternatives. No, you will not allow injustice to continue. You will not let cancer win. You will not let your voices go unheard. Acknowledge that the long slog is difficult and that the small and large defeats hurt, but remember that you're in it for keeps and so are your supporters. 

Show Pride

Take pride in what you've built together. You may not have achieved your objective, but your efforts have an impact on the public discourse and raise the issue’s profile. Celebrate your movement. Show gratitude to your leadership and volunteers. Thank people. Show your community just how overwhelmed you are by their passion, energy, and commitment and how much they inspired you.

Ask for Feedback

Take a moment to ask for feedback. How do people want to be involved? Are they burnt out? What do they think of your strategy? We don't go to our constituents enough to ask them for advice about what excites them. Use the loss as an opportunity to listen.

Celebrate Small Victories along the way

It’s important to celebrate the small victories and wins you achieve over time. Bad news doesn’t sting as much when people know about the progress you’ve made and understand the loss within the context of the larger arc of your efforts. Sharing the small wins will help you earn people’s trust and keeps them excited to take action even in the face of bad news.

Use the Bad News to Your Advantage

Think about how can you leverage the bad news to your benefit? Get creative. Could this be motivating to your community in some way? Think about how Planned Parenthood turned the Komen Debacle into a significant fundraising opportunity. How can you flip the loss to an opportunity?

How about you? 

Have you had to break terrible news to your community? How did people react?


Avi Kaplan is a Senior Strategist at Rad Campaign, a DC based web agency that provides web design, web development, online marketing, and strategy to nonprofit organizations and political campaigns.