Article In Brief:
- The Problem: It is tempting to get into false thinking that nothing bad can happen to your organization. Doing so leaves you unprepared to communicate in a crisis.
- The Context: Every nonprofit has the same probability of experiencing situations, such as accidents or disasters, that can evolve into crises without proper planning.
- The Solution: First assess the risks that your nonprofit faces. Then, using the six steps in this article, develop a crisis communications plan and train key roles in your nonprofit on their role and responsibility. With a plan and training in place, your nonprofit can withstand the worst and continue fulfilling its mission.
Because of all the good nonprofits do, it is tempting to think nothing bad can happen to them.
As a result, too few organizations have effective, comprehensive plans for dealing with nonprofit risks and can turn into crises. It is important to note that a crisis can be an act of God or human-caused (maybe both). Despite where they originate, crises can adversely affect the operations and/or reputation of an organization.
In the life of an organization, the question is not if but when an accident, disaster, or crisis will happen. As a former reporter and long-time nonprofit communications professional, I have both witnessed and been involved in a variety of entirely preventable or more manageable situations.
Nonprofit leaders must take steps to identify potential negative situations and do what they can to prevent them. Few nonprofits are going to be the unwitting victims of crises. However, all nonprofits are likely to experience situations, such as accidents or disasters, that can evolve into crises without proper planning.
A client or staff person may be injured at a nonprofit’s facility, or a volunteer could have a slip and fall during a special event. But the crisis isn’t usually the event itself; it’s the fallout.
Talk to your insurance broker at least once a year to review your nonprofit policy. Make sure your nonprofit is adequately protected for the risks you have identified.
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Let’s say two participants at a charity golf tournament have been taking advantage of the event’s free beers. One of them gets behind the wheel and turns over a golf cart during a benefit, injuring one—or both—of the participants. They then threaten to sue the nonprofit for negligence.
Or perhaps the president of a small college has a heart attack, leaving the school rudderless. For several days, faculty, staff, and students have no idea who is in charge. Communications are inconsistent, and donors need to be reassured of the college’s trajectory.
Sometimes disasters are weather-related, such as a hurricane destroying a residential treatment center for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Fortunately, the foster children and staff are evacuated and safe, but all the children’s belongings and hard-copy records are lost. Agency leadership has to scramble to determine where the program will be relocated, to figure out how to contact caseworkers to let them know where the children are, and to get new prescriptions for the children. The agency also has to get permission from the state regulatory agency to move the children elsewhere.
The same (or different) hurricane might also flood a theater’s basement, destroying all the props and instruments in the middle of the season. Theater leadership then has to decide whether to stage plays at another site or cancel the rest of the year and issue refunds.
Identify and Mitigate Potential Risks
As we’ve seen in the previous examples, accidents and disasters can be devastating if agencies do not address them. In fact, accidents and disasters can easily turn into crises if nonprofits don’t take charge promptly and properly.
Sometimes organizations just make bad calls, as we’ve seen with the consequences of ignoring allegations of child abuse by national youth-serving organizations. Or the criticism generated by the disaster response agency when the public realized its donations were not all being directed to current disasters but instead partially held back for future incidents. These organizations have taken significant hits to both their reputations and bottom lines for their mismanagement of these crises.
As such, prevention and mitigation are the best measures to address potential accidents, disasters, and crises.
Take a hard and honest look at the services your organization offers and identify potential risks.
- Are background checks conducted on all staff, volunteers, and board members? Remember, you are protecting both your clients and your nonprofit’s reputation by making sure you don’t have anyone in your ranks who could cause harm.
- Evaluate your policies, procedures, onboarding, and training offered to your stakeholders. Do you have protocols to prevent theft or fraud? Do you have a system for addressing complaints about abuse, sexual harassment, or bullying of clients, employees, and volunteers?
- Consider your organization’s data security as well. How well is your data backed up and protected?
- In terms of disaster preparedness, you should also assess your physical facilities. Are your facilities as safe as they possibly can be (and up to code)? Do you have enough fire extinguishers, First Aid kids, and AED machines in your buildings (and are they strategically located)? You might consider inviting your local fire and police departments as well as your insurance representative(s) to do walk-throughs with you so they can identify areas of improvement, including maps, plans, and drills for either sheltering in place or collecting at a designated meeting spot.
- However, this physical assessment of your facilities also relates to previous points concerning theft and harassment. For example, consider whether replacing physical keys with electronic keypads or cards might allow you to monitor (and cut off) access to disgruntled or problematic parties. You might also consider installing 24/7 surveillance systems or panic buttons, especially if your building is located in an area or works with clients that put your staff, clients, and volunteers at risk.
This might seem like overkill, but mitigation and prevention are the best strategies for making sure accidents and disasters (human-related or otherwise) do not turn into full-scale crises.
Having a Crisis Communications Plan
Now that you’ve taken steps to do everything in your power to prevent a problem, your leadership team should develop a crisis communications plan. This plan should reassure your stakeholders that you are continuing to fulfill your mission. Here are the six steps you can use to develop a detailed crisis communications plan:
1. Assemble a Crisis Team
When you develop your plan, list positions (and not specific people) for your crisis team. Staff come and go, and board members rotate off. Also, the team’s make-up will depend on the particular situation.
For example, if your executive director is at the center of the crisis, it may not be appropriate for her to be on the team. In this case, someone else should be ready to step in and act as the face and voice of the agency.
2. Gather Information
There are questions that need to be answered during a crisis. Delegate gathering the information to the appropriate staff. Because of my background in media, I organize these questions in terms of the 5 Ws and 1 H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
However, not every question is relevant to (or helpful in) every context. You might use the following table as a guide:
|Who||-Who is involved?|
-Who is impacted?
-Who is at fault?
|Who is in charge?||Who needs to be informed?|
|What||-What has happened?|
-What was done to prevent the problem?
|What is being done to address the crisis?||What is the message to stakeholders?|
|When||-When did the incident happen? |
-When did your leadership know about the problem?
|When will it be resolved?|
|Where||-Where did the incident happen?||Where are services being offered in the aftermath?||Where are services being offered in the aftermath?|
|Why||-Why did the incident happen? |
-Why wasn’t something done to prevent the situation?
|How||-How did the incident happen? |
-How did you learn about it?
|-How are you communicating to stakeholders?|
-How are you working to address it?
|-How are you communicating to stakeholders?
-How are you working to address it?
3. Develop Talking Points
During a crisis, a consistent message is a must, and transparency is paramount. With social media and the internet, conflicting messages and/or a failure to be honest about what your agency is doing will quickly come to light.
However, not every detail will be or needs to be shared with every stakeholder audience. Identify the three key messages you want to communicate:
- What happened?
- What are you doing to address the situation?
- How will you continue to fulfill your mission?
Every person who will be talking to stakeholders should have Post-It by their phones with those talking points so they relay a consistent message.
4. Designate a Spokesperson
Your spokesperson should be situation-specific. If your ED is on the hotseat, identify someone else, such as the second-in-command, your board president, or your communications professional as spokesperson. That person needs to memorize the three talking points and stick to them. Always. If the news media calls, your spokesperson should stick to the talking points and decline to speculate. Remember, just because a reporter asks a question does not mean your spokesperson has to answer it. Make sure all involved parties understand this point. While your first inclination may be to accept blame, if appropriate, before you interact at all with the press or a third party, you should coordinate with your insurance representative to determine whether anything you are planning to say may have negative implications on the insurance company’s ability to defend you in a subsequent lawsuit related to this event.
If you need to do a press conference, be thoughtful about when and where you hold the conference. If the media is being particularly aggressive, you might consider scheduling a news conference away from the facility, so reporters cannot do live shots or chase down staff during the newscast.
5. Identify Stakeholders
The people who need to be informed of a crisis will depend on the situation. Similarly, the details you provide will depend on the stakeholder group.
If an agency lays off staff, for example, the nonprofit’s clients, volunteers, and donors should be informed immediately, but they will all need slightly different messages. Remaining staff and clients will want to be reassured that your agency will take care of them. Volunteers will need to know whether their roles and responsibilities will change. Donors will want to know their contributions are being managed efficiently.
6. Disseminate Information
Determine what channels will be used to disseminate the information and who will be responsible for contacting specific individuals or donors.
One mode of disseminating information might look something like this:
- The Executive Director (or designee) personally contacts board members and top donors.
- The Development Director contacts other major donors.
- The Grants Director notifies funders of what has happened.
- The Communications Director is in charge of external communications via newsletter and social media.
- Department heads communicate to their reports.
- Operations Director informs insurance broker if this event is of the type that might possibly turn into a claim against the organization
After the dust settles
Once the accident, disaster, or crisis has passed, do an after-action exercise to identify lessons learned and how your agency might be better prepared to prevent and respond to future incidents.
However, this can apply to other crises you witness happening as well. When you see another agency struggling with a crisis, you might consider doing a tabletop exercise. How would you respond if this happened to your organization? Consider completing a trial run of the 6-Step Crisis Communications Plan.
At the end of the day, you can’t anticipate every possible scenario. However, you can and should make a crisis and disaster plan to protect your agency.
Katherine Kerr Kubatzky, APR, is a former news reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper who brings a practical and realistic approach to nonprofit communications. She specializes in media relations, crisis communications, stakeholder communications, and event management. Katherine began working in the nonprofit sector in 1991 and has served social service agencies, hospitals, and universities as a freelancer, staff member, and department head.
Katherine is a member and past board member of the Religion Communicators Council. She is a past president of the Houston Press Club. She earned the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) designation. She has provided training on media relations and crisis communications to members of the Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) network, the Religion Communicators Council annual conference, and other nonprofit networks. She has managed and volunteered with several political campaigns.
A dedicated strategic thinker, problem solver, and team leader, Katherine works collaboratively to achieve an organization’s goals.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
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