Tips for Nonprofits: Working Through a Major Crisis

April 7, 2016
5 minutes

At any given moment, would your nonprofit be ready if the news announced something sure to negatively affect your nonprofit?

Your worst enemy during any crisis, exposing your vulnerability, is complacency. It is a litigious world we live in, and, combined with social media moving at the speed of light, your nonprofit can go from humble organization to the center of a major crisis within hours.

Fair or not, nonprofits, to the public's eye, are always held to a much higher standard than other profit-based companies. The expectation is to always operate efficiently and honestly, and if that isn't the issue, natural disasters (earthquake, flood tornado, virus pandemic) can take their toll on any nonprofit. That said, perhaps using the Boy Scouts motto of "Always Be Prepared" may be the best advice to minimize the impact of a crisis on a nonprofit.

Start Preparing Today

Not surprisingly, the majority of organizations today perform crisis planning immediately once the disaster has struck

Rather than be a part of the majority, gather up your key team members and brainstorm scenarios that may happen in your area. It could be medical (infection, radiological, etc.), natural (flood, earthquake, storm, tornado, etc.), or financial (theft, budget error, lack of funding, etc.).

One of your best bets is to speak to those in nonprofits who have weathered a crisis or two and can provide you with valuable information. Invite them to speak to your staff and board if possible. You will need to assign (or create) your public relations team, draft a crisis response plan, and issue a deadline, so they have a timeline to work with.

It's easy to think (and fairly common to believe) that nonprofits, especially the small ones, don't think they will come across a crisis. It's understandable as nobody really wants to think about such scenarios happening, but it is a reality that needs to be discussed and actioned. You must be an advocate for emergency preparedness.

A Crisis Can Take on Any Appearance

Crises come in a variety of forms. Some are low profile; others are high profile. It really depends on the scenario. To make matters more challenging, with social media operating 24/7, if it's a major internal issue, you may not have the luxury of keeping it out of the public eye for long. Local media would be all over it and then some. If you haven't built up solid relationships with local media outlets, you may want to start now.

Whether the crisis involves an accident resulting in serious injury to a volunteer or donor, internal financial theft, a lawsuit from a former volunteer or employee, or even stolen private client and donor information due to a hack attack, you will need to be prepared to respond with various action plans.

The above scenarios all require separate responses. This means preparing for as many crises as you can imagine and putting your best plans in place for each one. This will go a long way in minimizing the damage to your nonprofit's reputation.

The benefit to this process is that even if a crisis comes that you haven't identified, you will still be able to respond using one or more of the plans in place. Remember, the planning you did may actually turn up vulnerabilities related to insurance coverage, lack of or inadequate HR policies, or even a lack of talent with a particular skill(s).

This exercise is worth the time it takes to make your organization better in the long run. 

Create a Communications and Logistics Plan

A logistics plan involves the actual movement of people out of your building in the event of (for instance), an earthquake, shooter on-site, or in the event of a medical emergency.This often involves a risk management program dealing with the loss of life, property, or insurance-related problems. Identifying the right person(s) who can respond quickly, take charge, and manage the evacuation plan is vital.

This often involves a risk management program dealing with the loss of life, property, or insurance-related problems. Identifying the right person(s) who can respond quickly, take charge, and manage the evacuation plan is vital.

When speaking about the communications plan, you will need to identify a spokesperson(s), who gathers the facts as they come, who will write press releases, and prepare for a press conference.

Control Your Social Media

Social media will definitely be an ally in a crisis if you handle social media correctly. Almost every nonprofit today uses some form of social media tool. Decide who you will need to manage that particular media in an emergency. Set yourself up with a dashboard in advance in any event. It will come in handy when you need to monitor multiple digital channels and respond to them quickly during a crisis.

Fight rumors with facts and show your concern for those involved with or impacted by the crisis.

Be Prepared to Talk to the Media

Once the crisis has ended, every minute counts that you are not out in front, owning the situation. Your silence can be deafening. 

Move out with statements appropriate to the discussion and know what your message is. Even if all you have to say is that you are aware of the situation, your team is working on it, and although few facts are known right now, you hope to bring more as soon as they come.

To this end, keep up with updating the media regularly as events develop. For most situations, though, you should already have a script to go off of. 

Regardless of the crisis, show you're concerned, speak with concern, and always tell the truth.

Be Prepared to Talk to the Media

One of the biggest things to happen to complicate a media response is an on-air meltdown of your nonprofit media representative.

Gather up who is authorized to speak with the media on the organization's behalf and get them properly trained. It may be the CEO, ED, or a board member. You should also consider your top fundraiser and volunteer coordinator as well as a security individual and facilities managers.

If you have someone on board who already handles PR, they may be able to save you some training expenses. Do it once or twice over the year, so nobody grows stale.

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