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Crisis Management from the Trenches

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

In September 2012, the office building housing the headquarters of the nonprofit organization where I then served as Executive Director caught fire. With little knowledge of when we would be able to access the agency office, equipment, or client files or how much damage they had suffered, we immediately moved into crisis response mode. The primary problem (beyond the obvious): the agency did not have a crisis management response plan. Within six hours, we had drafted a statement on the status of our services for public distribution and had contacted the major media outlets. In less than 24 hours we were set up in donated office space thanks to existing high-impact partnerships, using our personal laptops, rescheduling meetings and appointments from our personal cellphones, and hosting media interviews. We never stopped providing emergency services. Crisis is what we did so we responded quickly. However, those first 24 hours and the weeks (and even months) to follow would have been much easier on staff, clients, participants, and volunteers had the organization and leadership been more prepared before the crisis.

This organization is not alone in failing to have an adequate crisis response plan. One study estimates that less than 12% of nonprofits adequately prepare for the “whens” (i.e., when a natural disaster occurs, when the bad news gets out, when a pandemic hits). Examples of lack of preparedness that led to PR nightmares in nonprofits abound – from Susan G. Komen to the NFL. Truthfully, no one can prepare for every possible disaster. However, we can try through strengthening of our foundations. Through the use of a risk survey analysis, creation of a crisis management and scenario response, implementation of training on the plan for staff and board, and continual update of the plan, we can better weather the storms that inevitably will come our way.

A crisis management response plan provides a “planned and well-thought-out approach to unexpected events that threaten people, property, and the ability of the organization to maintain effective operations.” The plan addresses natural disasters, occupational disasters (e.g., loss of data, death of key staff, loss of major funding source, economic downturn), fraud (e.g., employee or volunteer theft), and legal crises (e.g., lawsuit, injury of client) with a set recovery time objective for usual business operation. Often crisis management plans include emergency kits and evacuation plans for personal injury or natural disasters. There should also be considerations for remote employees whose locality may be experiencing a disaster even if the organization’s headquarters is not. Crisis Management Plans force organizations to address remote access to operational and governing policies, client data, and financial records; communication procedures; lack of financial diversification; whistleblower reporting procedures; leadership gaps; and insurance coverage gaps.

2021 is projected to bring us a major economic downturn, especially impacting those organizations who are dependent on government funding. I highly recommend this easy peasy checklist from the Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management at the City University of New York for assessing your organization’s governance and operational capacity to handle crisis and getting started in drafting your crisis management plan.


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