Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
8 min Read
May 12, 2021

Building a crisis management plan

Joan Garry

Joan Garry is one of the nonprofit sector’s greatest thinkers and advisors. Like us, she also believes in the power of strategic communications and its ability to help nonprofits of all shapes, sizes, and missions.

Joan Garry’s “Guide to Nonprofit Leadership”, now in its second edition, is a must-read for nonprofit leaders. Joan’s team has allowed us to excerpt a chapter of it here we think you shouldn’t miss. You can find this book (and others Joan has written) on Amazon or, better yet, at Joan’s local bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey.

Please do not be daunted by the hard conversations around creating a crisis management plan. This plan, incorporating some of the wisdom of Kathy Bonk and Emily Tynes from their book Strategic Communications for Nonprofits, can be developed in less than a day by a core group of folks. It would be great to include the board chair. That person will be in the hot seat, and it will create ownership and buy-in.

Only a day, you say? Or less? Yes. Because the real truth is that, if you peek under your pillow, you can find a small bag of worry dolls, each representing the things that keep you up at night — the really big things that will serve as the list for Phase I.

Phase I: Listing the worst things that could happen

Begin by developing a list that includes situations I would consider to be blazes of the five-alarm variety. I really don’t like even having to type these:

  • A missing child who was in your care
  • A teacher accused of abusing a student
  • A hate crime against the community you represent
  • A shooting in the office of your organization
  • A college student suicide
  • A change in your programs that will enrage your clients
  • A decision by a single source that provides 85% of your revenue to pull funding
  • A charge of commission of a crime by your staff or board leader
  • The issuance of a credible, widely distributed report that makes a strong case for misuse of funds
  • A staff termination that leads to a lawsuit, staff unrest, negative publicity, and key funders walking away

Have you broken out in a cold sweat yet? OK, hang on. I’ll get you there with this next exercise.

Phase II: Imagining the worst headline about your organization on the front page of the New York Times

You may think this is the same exercise as in Phase 1, but please stay with me. We’ll come back to headlines later in the chapter. So I want you to create these as a benchmark. As you do this, I also think you should visualize the photo that will accompany the headline. The photos often stay with folks much longer than the words.

One last word of advice here: don’t get too carried away. Just pick three or four scenarios and flesh them out. Make sure that one is about an internal decision the organization makes and that three others are potential crises. You don’t need a long list, as the plans will have common threads.

Phase III: Making assumptions

Here you are trying, in each of your nightmarish scenarios, to put yourself in the shoes of the press, the board, the public, staff, and donors. What will they think and feel when they find out? I’ll give you a big, fat hint here. People will always assume that you didn’t do enough right away. And what kind of actions can you take or messages can you deliver (and how quickly) to get out in front before assumptions are made? Make a list of assumptions for each scenario, and then list actions or messages that may preempt those assumptions.

Phase IV: Outlining a process

The process should have several important elements:

  1. Create an organization crisis management team. Clearly, it needs to include the ED and the board chair. But there will be lots to do because “it” will be flying. Here’s who you need to include:
    • Start with a point person for the media. Typically, it’s the leader. Should the leader be at the heart of the crisis—legal or criminal — a backup should be identified.
    • If you have a communications staffer, clearly they get pegged.
    • It can be very helpful to have someone who is not part of the day-to-day work — a volunteer or donor you ask to be a part of this in the event of a 911 situation. Perhaps someone who works at a PR agency in your community? Having an outside perspective can help you avoid a bunker mentality — feeling like this is all you talk about and think about and believing that the entire universe is talking about it and thinking about it.
    • Choose someone who will monitor the media (this might be a volunteer role), set Google Alerts and stay on top of the buzz and how it is playing out. Things move quickly, and the team needs to have its finger on the pulse.
  2. Write the antidote headline you most want to see in the newspaper. Time to compare and contrast the “worst” scenario from Phase I. Create the headline for each of your two to four crisis scenarios and then back into core messages from the headlines.
  3. Train spokespeople for the world of 911. Is there any way that anyone in your community can, after the development of the plan, offer a two- or three-hour crisis management team training, pro bono? Or what about the communications person at another, larger organization in town who has completed their training? This is a specialized kind of training — high stress and high intensity.
  4. Build ally relationships before you need them badly. When you have developed relationships with elected officials, business leaders, and other nonprofit leaders in your community, your organization is richer for it. You are more informed about the goings-on, you have the opportunity to be of help to one another and, in a crisis situation, you will be there for them and they will be there for you. You will need external validators who know about your good work and your integrity — who can publicly support you and privately offer you guidance. This may be the last item on the list, but don’t think for one second that it’s the least important. It takes a village to manage through a crisis.

Now you are set for when it hits the fan, right?

Time for three little secrets:

Even with a plan, you are never really ready. You are prepared, but not really ready. When you are in the eye of the storm, one ingredient blurs and causes short-term memory loss of all this planning. It’s called emotion. It manifests itself in everything from self-doubt to defensiveness to panic. And that, my friends, is why planning is so important — because you have a road map you can focus on and know that you have done your best to be prepared.

True story: a direct service organization has to move out of its current space. The new space that is identified has many plusses that will enable the organization to offer better services but is outside the core neighborhood of the community it serves. That neighborhood is now prohibitively expensive. Clients are in an uproar and, more importantly, the figurehead founder has gone to the press to condemn the decision and the quote is mean-spirited toward the current ED and board. This founder is a well-known personality in the community and in the organization’s history of more than 20 years. He has been a go-to person for the press — often more than the current organizational leadership.

Not to sound like a shrink, but how do you think that ED feels? Hurt? Angry that he was not sought out? Defensive about the decision? Upset that the clients are upset because these are the folks whose lives he is there to improve? Now, that is a lot of emotion. Having a plan helps keep emotion in check.

Nonprofit leaders tend to be pleasers who look for middle ground. (Is that a common theme in this book? I’m thinking yes). That is frequently not the answer to a crisis. More often than not, crisis management is about bold leadership, clear decision-making, and sticking to your guns on what might be unpopular decisions.

I’m remembering a situation a community center found itself in. The center was in a major urban setting, and one of its offerings was space rental for meetings. An Israeli organization reserved space, much to the chagrin of a Palestinian organization. The center’s leader focused on trying to make both sides happy and met with each group often — not a bad strategy, but solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was well above this leader’s pay grade.

The issue wasn’t about solving the conflict. Instead, the issue was developing a clear policy about who could and who could not rent space in the center. Did all organizations interested in renting space need to share the core values of the community served by the center? And don’t think for a minute that every member of the community was like-minded. An assessment of the rental policy needed to be made. The organization’s leadership — board and staff — needed to own and buy into any changes. The policy needed to be presented, a stake placed in the ground, and all had to live with the consequences. Bottom line: someone is likely to be very unhappy. Leadership is not about making people happy — it’s about making decisions that are in clear alignment with your organization. the mission and values of your organization

In a crisis, you don’t want to make the wrong decision, and being deliberate can result in moving too slowly. You want all the facts before you move. You won’t have them. Trust me. But those who learn about the crisis want information faster — way faster than you are comfortable providing it. And if you don’t provide it, someone other than you will fill the void — likely inaccurately or not in your favor.

Figure out what you can say ASAP that:

    • is totally authentic
    • honors the need for information
    • makes a commitment to frequent communications and continued updates
    • reiterates the integrity of your organization as a core value and your commitment to doing what it takes to be true to that core value throughout the crisis and its resolution.