Venice Family Clinic has always taken a bold, creative approach to engaging families and the community. The challenges of 2020 have presented new and unique opportunities for the organization to embody – and communicate – its values and mission. On the occasion of the Clinic’s 50th anniversary, Cause’s Vanessa Schnaidt met with Naveena Ponnusamy, the Chief Development and Communications Officer, to discuss storytelling during the pandemic, innovative campaign pivots that keep audiences at the center, and advice for other nonprofits navigating similar challenges.
Vanessa Schnaidt (VS): Venice Family Clinic had big plans for 2020, celebrating the organization’s 50th Anniversary with a big campaign focused on community. How did the Clinic pivot this year?
Naveena Ponnusamy (NP): We started the year with a blueprint for celebrating the anniversary—including communications strategies, plans for new intimate in-person events in lieu of a large gala, and ambitious goals for convening our audiences. We developed a big campaign to communicate our values and impact using fresh materials. When the pandemic hit, we really had to adjust our approach and move beyond the templates we prepared. But in that process, we learned we had a strong foundation of ideas, inspiration, assets, and energy that could fuel our new tactics. Ultimately, the pivot reinforced all of our brand values and provided an opportunity to lift up just how critical our work is today. We saw how important it was to provide access to quality health care. So, in reality, our core message remained as relevant as ever.
VS: What role have virtual events and digital communications played in this pivot?
NP: There was a thirst for information very early on, so we took advantage of virtual spaces to gather people and quickly mastered Zoom webinars and meetings. To be responsive to our audiences’ needs, we held a briefing from our leadership on our understanding of the situation and how the clinic planned to evolve all of our services. Our audiences listened and were receptive to the information. And in turn, we listened to their needs.
We learned that our clients, supporters, and other audiences were relying on our virtual meetings and emails to access important information and stay connected. So, we adapted and increased our newsletter frequency. We also diversified the kinds of resources we shared across our channels, based on our observations that people were eager to learn about ways they could help others.
We also started a Health and Justice webinar series. Our community was asking how these issues related to our work, providing the perfect opportunity to talk about how social, racial, and economic injustice impacts health care. This series had higher attendance than our normal events, and the accessibility of the virtual platform meant that we were able to hear from new or historically less vocal segments of our audiences.
VS: Your approach really underscores how important listening is for communications and audience engagement. Not only were you giving your community clear calls-to-action and opportunities to be part of the Clinic’s success, you were also listening to what they needed in the moment and responding in ways that ultimately grew your community.
NP: Absolutely. We put so much out there, and it was really meaningful to see their gratitude in receiving resources and taking part in the conversations and support services.
VS: One of your roles as Chief Development and Communications Officer is to tell the story of your impact and engage supporters in that mission-driven journey. Can you share more about how you’re talking about your work and impact differently right now, especially in terms of the kind of values framework you mentioned earlier?
NP: I think there’s two types of storytelling that we’ve been doing. One is telling the story of our community and the patients we serve. I think that is always an important type of storytelling, so people can feel connected to who you’re helping and see it in a very tangible way. Second, we did and continue to do extensive emergency planning, so we really leaned into communicating our thought leadership, expertise in being prepared for this pandemic, and ultimately our stories from our people working at the Clinic.
VS: Do you feel like that approach to storytelling has given you an opportunity to showcase how Venice Family Clinic is unique?
NP: I do—we’re always trying to communicate that health is connected to everything in society. We have the opportunity to reinforce how health care intersects with so many different aspects of life. And although we’re always communicating that message, in this pandemic more people are really starting to see and hear that. For 50 years, our core mission and services have connected those dots—through food distribution, education, etc.—and our community really sees the intersections of health care, food insecurity, economic inequity, and homelessness. That awareness is driving people to care for their neighbors in extraordinary ways.
VS: I love hearing about how, despite all of the unpredictability and unforeseen challenges, the Clinic keeps coming back to its core messaging and the mission that have always been important to you. It sounds like a really strategic way of communicating in this moment while remaining really topical and relevant.
NP: Our messaging is really rooted in the real work that we do—you don’t have to spin how you talk about it. There’s strength that comes from communicating honestly and directly.
VS: Anniversaries are a big communications and fundraising opportunity in any year. What recommendations would you give an organization planning their own anniversary campaigns now?
NP: An anniversary is a moment to celebrate your past, but more so it’s a launching point to share what’s coming next. So my advice would be to focus on the future, and also connect whatever’s happening right now to the story of your origin and anniversary. For us, the Clinic’s 50th anniversary coincides with the pandemic, a call for racial equity, and an election in which we are fighting for health care access for everyone.
VS: Talk about intersectionality, right?
NP: Right! That’s the story of today. We can tie that to the story of our history and how we’ve been talking about all of these intersections for 50 years. We have a huge, passionate community of longtime supporters who have helped us at the intersection of all those topics. We need to tell those stories of how we’ve gotten to where we are today—and with the help of so many people. Sharing that legacy and track record is how we continue to grow our community of supporters.
VS: What advice would you give yourself back in March, knowing what you know today?
NP: We have to think of this as a long game. In March, we didn’t know how long COVID-19 was going to be around or how urgent it was going to remain, and we were just trying to figure out how to communicate in that moment. But that moment has lasted a long time. We know we have to tell this story now. Remember that we have the trust of the community and we’re in this together. We’ve been around for 50 years; we have to showcase all the good work we’re doing and reinforce that we’re going to keep doing it.
VS: There’s a lot more to come for the Clinic—certainly in the years and decades to come, but even in the coming weeks. What are you looking forward to right now?
NS: We’re looking forward to having a bit of fun for the anniversary. We’re hosting a virtual celebration to bring people together. The story of the Clinic is the story of many people in the community coming together to make the work happen. Right now, we’re in our Week of Action which includes an array of virtual programs. Supporters can take the pledge for action and join virtual programs, with a great lineup of talent!
I’m proud to work for such a mission-oriented, community organization, and I have come to learn and appreciate that even more now this year and through our anniversary events.
To celebrate the Clinic’s 50th anniversary, join the Week of Action through October 17 and other events over the next few months. Visit venicefamilyclinic.org/50years to get started.