Bad things happen to good nonprofits.
During my career in nonprofit, I have been involved in handling a client's death during my organization's program; a product tampering that threatened our biggest fundraiser; an athletic scandal; and a mass shooting on a campus.
I was naive until the first time. After that I became obsessed with being prepared.
Here are my suggestions for better crisis management by your nonprofit.
1. Don't Wait.
Many organizations only get their crisis plans underway once a disaster has struck. Instead, brainstorm possible scenarios or types of disasters that could happen and start planning for them. Educate yourself about nonprofit crises and talk to those who weathered them. Invite a veteran of crises to speak to your staff and your board. Assign your public relations staff to draft a crisis plan and give them a deadline.
Advocate for good crisis preparedness. Many people in nonprofits, especially small organizations, don't think anything bad will ever happen; they don't want to think about it; they don't think they have the time to prepare; and they might even resent staff who push on this topic. Speak up anyway. You'll be thanked later.
2. Realize That Crises Take Many Shapes.
Crises come in all flavors. Some are high profile, others might be more low key. But, in a time of 24/7 news, thinking you can keep the situation out of the public eye is a fantasy.
Your crisis might be a fire in a dormitory, the death of a client, embezzlement by your chief financial officer, or even a lawsuit by a former employee. They will all require different responses. Prepare for as many as you can imagine, and do your best to put plans into place that will minimize the damage to your nonprofit's reputation.
Even if something happens that you didn't think of, your preparation for other types of emergencies will help. The planning alone will have uncovered gaps in security, insurance coverage, poor human resource policies, or the shortage of people with particular skills. Practicing any emergency response is likely to make your organization better prepared for others.
3. Develop a Logistical Plan and a Communications Plan.
A logistical plan has to do with getting everyone out of the building in case of an earthquake, texting staff and clients that a gunman has been spotted in the building, or handling a medical emergency. Develop a risk management program to deal with loss of life, property, and insurance issues. Identify point people who can go into action quickly, notify appropriate help, and manage evacuation plans.
A communications plan involves identifying spokespeople, assigning someone to gather the facts as they emerge, writing press releases, setting up a media hotline, and finding a place where you can have a press conference. These can all be done in advance.
4. Get Your Social Media House in Order
Social media can be a blessing during a crisis IF it is handled well. Almost all nonprofits now use some level of social media. Decide now who will manage that media during a crisis situation. Set up a dashboard where it can be monitored and responses provided quickly.
Because of social media, there is little chance of controlling information in a way that used to be possible. So don't try to. But you can, through monitoring and judicious response, provide good information, fight rumors with fact, and express concern. Social media may well be the best way to show the human face of your organization and shore up its reputation for being kind, sympathetic, polite, accurate, and a source for unbiased information.
5. Prepare to Speak.
Every minute counts after a crisis. Don't waste any of them. Silence is deadly. Get out with appropriate statements and messages immediately, even if it is to only say that you know about the situation, you're working on it, and that few facts are known at the moment. Then keep it up with updates as the facts develop. For many situations, you may have already prepared statements that can be used. This is when your issues management program will pay off.
In all communications, be concerned, show concern, speak concern, and always tell the truth. Don't be afraid to say, "We don't know." That is better than guessing. Add that you are working as quickly as possible to get all the facts.
Far more is lost by refusing to speak to the media than is risked by doing so. A vacuum of information breeds media hostility and public loss of confidence.
6. Provide Media Training
Media training will be your best friend during a crisis. Don't risk a media meltdown.
Put together a media training program before disaster strikes. Train anyone who might need to be a spokesperson. That would be your key board members, your CEO and other key staff, such as a media relations person, your top fundraiser, your volunteer coordinator and, where applicable, your security person or whoever is in charge of your facilities. Think broadly when deciding who to train.
Media training needn't cost a lot if you have someone on your board who works in public relations or someone who is a member of the media. The key is to do it regularly so new people are always trained and others don't grow stale.