Crisis Management for Nonprofit Leaders

Crisis: The very word evokes images of destructive weather, political upheaval, panic and chaos, and volatile situations.

Yet, a crisis can certainly be all of those things, but not always. As organizations that serve the public, nonprofits by their very nature will always encounter crises — the key is being able to keep the ship afloat and protect its crew until the storm passes.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving defines a crisis as any unstable or crucial time or state of affairs, or radical change possibly involving endangerment to property. Crises demand decisive change and typically involve third parties such as police, medical personnel, attorneys or the news media. Proper response starts with proper preparation.

Thinking the unthinkable

As with most leadership responsibilities, crisis management involves a mix of planning and creativity. The best nonprofits prepare for the unthinkable, creating a crisis-management framework that applies whether an incident has wide-ranging ramifications or is more limited in scope.

The Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California, a consortium of insurers and nonprofit organizations, advises nonprofits to begin by identifying the types of crises your organization is likely to face. By imagining the worst things that might happen, such organizations are usually better prepared for real-life crises. The Hartford Foundation suggests organizations begin by identifying natural disasters that can occur in your area.

For instance, tornadoes might be a likely event in the Plains states as well as the Southeast, whereas ice storms and blizzards would be more likely in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. And, of course, the natural disasters most likely in California involve fire and earthquakes.

Guidelines for developing a crisis-management strategy

Once you’ve thoroughly brainstormed a multitude of crisis scenarios, it’s time to start working up a thorough crisis-response plan. Here’s a quick overview of what to do:

  • Develop an organizational who’s who. Always have a comprehensive, up-to-date directory of officers and key people in your nonprofit.
  • Complete an inventory. All nonprofits have assets of one kind or another. What are yours? Find out, and write them all down.
  • Back up all electronic records. With so much residing in electronic form these days, it’s prudent to do thorough — and frequent — data backups and store a copy in the cloud or off-site.
  • Don’t go it alone. Just as the best leaders delegate, the best crisis-management technique is to establish an organizational crisis team who will spring into action when trouble strikes.
  • Rehearse your plan. Many nonprofits conduct impromptu crisis drills, rehearsing their response to a theoretical scenario. This is also an opportunity to make any needed adjustments to the crisis plan.
  • Inform your audience. A simple, readable crisis-management plan should go out to all employees, volunteers, the organization’s board and other key stakeholders.
  • Provide outside resources. Spell out who must be notified in an emergency, including police, fire, ambulance, and internal security personnel. Don’t overlook emergency responders of a different sort — the organization’s HR team, for instance, or even professional grief counselors in a tragedy.
  • Be flexible. No plan should be all-encompassing or written in stone. The best disaster plans are flexible and adaptable to the requirements of each situation.

A necessary corollary: communication

Crisis communication goes hand in hand with crisis management. A crisis communications plan makes for quick response, clear thinking and group cohesiveness, the Nonprofit Risk Management Association advises.

“Creating the plan in advance of the crisis allows you the luxury of having time to think through what’s needed undistracted,” the NRMA notes. “Such a plan addresses who will speak for your organization, which media you will contact first, and what information you can divulge.”


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