As Orbis International’s global communications and marketing chief, Louise Harris is tasked with helping the nonprofit succeed in its mission — preventing and treating avoidable blindness — by reaching the range of stakeholders that make that happen, from corporate donors to on-the-ground teams working with underserved communities. For Harris, much of doing that changed with Covid which disrupted Orbis’ services (including grounding its flying hospital) — albeit it in some ways for the better. In an interview with PRovoke Media, Harris discusses how changing tactics due to the pandemic led to increased physician participation, the continuation of patient care and maintaining relationships with supporters who in 2019 donated to Orbis more than $378.5 million. An edited transcript:

Tell us about what Orbis does.

Orbis is an international nonprofit that is focused on the prevention and treatment of avoidable blindness. Avoidable blindness is a huge problem. 1.1 billion people around the world have vision loss or impairment and surprisingly 90% of that is avoidable. It’s primarily because people don’t have access to the eye health that we enjoy in more developed countries like the US. Orbis carries out our mission through a network of partners around the world and our volunteer faculty that train, mentor and inspire local teams so they can save sight in their communities.

Where is most of your work done?

We deploy volunteer faculty, 400 medical experts, who devote their time for free to help train and carry out our work. We work in low and middle-income countries. In Africa, for example, we work in Ghana, Zambia, and Cameroon. In Asia we work in countries including Bangladesh and India and Mongolia. We work in Peru and Chile. The training is for the entire eye health team, local ophthalmologists who have different specialties. We train anesthesiologists in safe procedures, nurses in infection controls, and biomedical engineers in using equipment. We partner with local hospitals to encourage people to go into ophthalmology.

Orbis is probably best known for our flying eye hospital. It is an MD-10 aircraft that has a fully equipped, accredited hospital on board. That started in 1982. Now, the flying hospital is about 20% of our work. Now we are seeing huge growth in our telemedicine platform, called Cybersight, to do our training, teaching and remote mentorship virtually. Because of Covid we now have participants in our Cybersight training from 200 countries. The only three countries we are not in are North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Western Sahara.

How were you able to continue your mission — which includes reaching healthcare workers as well as donors — when the world’s attention and resources were focused on Covid?

We all had to think differently. And we all had to work differently. And our mission had to be carried out in a different way because we couldn’t stop. We had to find new ways of doing it and it had to be relevant, so our mission changed. Instead of having our flying hospital go out to programs we launched a virtual flying hospital. That allowed the teams that were supposed to go to countries in the airplane to develop a completely online course.  We completely reimagined our work through a virtual setting. And we found that our number of registered eye professionals (participating) doubled in 2020. We had 38,000 professionals across these 200 countries on the platform, doing the webinars, doing the consultations. Normally around 60 professionals would be on our webinars, and we saw 500 people. So, the thirst for knowledge and the thirst for learning continued during Covid.

Every year in Ethiopia, we would go in and organize mass drug administration to prevent trachoma, give people antibiotics in a major setting. We couldn’t do that during Covid but we couldn’t stop the antibiotic distribution. So, we went door-to-door, which meant 100,000 extra days of work if you add it all up. We knew it would be more expensive and more time intensive, but we were able to administrator 7.5 million doses of antibiotics by going door-to-door, and we had donors give us money for the PPE.

You have the full spectrum of stakeholders, from funders to hard-to-reach populations. How did you prioritize and target your messaging during the last year?

Obviously, our supporters, donors and potential donors are a very important for us because we are completely reliant on donations, from individuals and from corporate partners. The medical community is an important audience as well. We have these 400 faculty members who are wonderful ambassadors for the organization. But during Covid they were being deployed to work on Covid in some way.

There were three things that helped us in communications during Covid. One was authenticity Number two was relevance. Any content that we had pre-pandemic was not valuable at all. We had to put out very timely fresh content which took a lot more time, but it had higher engagement. Before Covid we could have a bank of stories and a content calendar. But after Covid all the timelines got compressed and we got to move very quickly to be newsworthy. People weren’t interested in six months ago they were interested in what happened last week.  And third was having positive stories. Positive stories of communities rallying around to carry out their work despite Covid, or during Covid. We had a campaign called Heroes of Orbis. And Heroes of Orbis highlighted people doing incredible things, giving hope and to showing the urgency of our work — and that we couldn’t stop our work. Because blindness doesn’t go away in a pandemic. In the communities, in India and Bangladesh, we would work with partner hospitals on Covid controls. How do you reimagine your eye clinic? How do you know which cases are urgent and which could wait? We would help.

How has the experience changed your communications strategies moving forward?

Things have changed for the better. We have found that working remotely has increased collaboration, and increased creativity because we were forced to think differently, we were forced to come up with new solutions. And so this culture of collaboration will continue. One of the things we had to do is look at our content gathering. How do you gather content when you can’t actually send a photographer out into the country to take pictures? We had more user generated content. We did many, many interviews virtually with our volunteer faculty and gather our stories that way. And a lot of that will continue.

With all the economic uncertainty on top of Covid were you able to rally supporters?

We were surprised how we have managed to keep the attention and interest and finances coming, a lot of which is because we got out early. We created urgency of need. And then we shared the positive stories and showing the people who are benefiting from our services. We helped an adorable little girl who was 42 days old, Marla in Mongolia, the youngest person ever in Mongolia to have eye surgery. She was born with congenital cataracts and if she hadn’t had that surgery, she would have been blind. Those are the kind of stories that resonate with people.