Coping with Crisis in the Not-for-Profit World

Is your organization prepared for a crisis that could threaten its survival?

A hand writing a message that says "Are you ready?"

It could be anything from a devastating economic downturn, to a domestic abuse or sexual harassment scandal involving a high-ranking official, to a natural disaster that destroys your main offices. Regardless of the nature and extent of the crisis, prompt action is required.

First things first: Don't panic.

Second, this is the time for not-for-profit management, including the board of directors, to step up and provide leadership. The top rung must exhibit the qualities and take the actions needed to sustain the organization.

Qualities Needed

The qualities that can stand not-for-profit leaders in good stead in a crisis include:

Take Action

When there's no turning back from a crisis, these six steps might keep the nonprofit in the driver's seat and help stem the tide of confusion or reproach:

1. Inform and update the board.
Regardless of where board members are located, they should quickly be brought into the loop. Hopefully your group has set up procedures for crisis management, so follow them expeditiously. After things have simmered down, review the events to see how practices can be changed for the future.

2. Deliver the message.
One of the key components in crisis management is how and when the not-for-profit communicates with the media. Everyone should be on the same page as to who will speak for the organization. Usually, this job is best assigned to one person, such as the president. Having other voices can complicate matters. Similarly, one person should handle social media.

3. Communicate with stakeholders.
The main stakeholders in the organization — including employees, large donors and board members — must be apprised of the situation. Again, rely on the procedures in place for contacting these people. When warranted, you might enlist a communication consultant to provide extra direction.

4. Create a crisis committee.
Once the initial shock is over, selecting a team and assigning primary duties will help your not-for-profit move ahead. This stand-alone committee will be authorized to act independently, but keep the board up-to-date on what's being done.

5. Obtain legal advice. If your procedures have been reviewed and approved by legal counsel, you can spring into action without hesitation. But it can't hurt to run things by your attorneys before any drastic steps are taken or the situation appears to fall between the cracks. Caveat: While attorneys speak to the organization, they should not be the sole voice speaking for the organization on public platforms.

6. Meet objectives.
Finally, determine what the not-for-profit hopes to accomplish in the aftermath of the event. Although this may vary, depending on the type of crisis, here are some common goals:

Practical advice: Be prepared for worst-case scenarios. In some cases, if you are aware, you can avoid trouble before it happens. In any event, if a crisis arises, act assertively and promptly.

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