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Developing A Crisis Response Plan For Nonprofits.

Tips for Implementing a Crisis Response Plan for Your Mission-Driven Organization


The past few years have been a crash course in crisis response — thanks in part to the pandemic, but also related and unrelated issues that continue to plague today’s nonprofit and mission-driven organizations. These include financial turmoil, regulatory and legal changes, and geopolitical and social conflicts, to name just a few.

Whether it’s the “crisis of contraction” experienced by nonprofit theater groups or the ACLU’s internal strife around strategic priorities, organizations of all sizes, and in all mission spheres, are struggling.

Let’s get this out of the way: One cannot prepare for every crisis. Trying is an exercise in anxiety and self-doubt — which can lead to procrastination and hopelessness. But by being prepared for bigger-picture issues, you can also be ready for smaller issues that emerge along the way.

While it is impossible to prepare for every contingency, a thoughtful crisis response plan sets the stage for faster recovery.

Why Nonprofits Need a Crisis Response Plan

While drafting a new crisis response plan can seem intimidating, volunteer boards can get started by categorizing the types of crises their organizations may face. In an earlier piece, we identified five crisis types. Let’s revisit them with an eye on recent examples putting organizations at risk today.

  • People feel threatened. The president of the National Association of Realtors resigned after The New York Times reported claims of a history of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
  • Property damage. An Ohio nonprofit that helps families affected by loss or abuse suffered the destruction of its headquarters in a fire.
  • Disruption in the normal flow of activity. A Minneapolis nonprofit that supports Native American youth recently finished rebuilding after civil unrest following the 2020 murder of George Floyd led to the destruction of its building.
  • Reputational damage. Six in 10 healthcare organizations have experienced ransomware attacks in the past year, NPR reported. (Nonprofits continue to be targets of ransomware attacks.)
  • Financial harm. In addition to the fallout of economic issues, nonprofits can be victimized by embezzlement, like this student band booster organization.

These types of crises can easily overlap, with reputational damage resulting from any number of issues an association can face. But understanding these larger categories sets the stage for effective crisis planning.

To help governance leaders navigate uncharted waters and prepare for future crises, we’ve put together a Crisis Management Toolkit with core considerations and guidelines, tips and best practices to implement immediately. Download your copy now!


The Board’s Role in Crisis Planning and Mitigation

Crisis management, mitigation and planning are all part of the board’s responsibilities. In fact, “the buck stops boards” was explored in a piece on building board crisis management capacity. So what does that look like for directors of mission-driven organizations?

Oversight and Decision-Making

Staff, donors, volunteers and the public look to the board for leadership during a crisis. The board has a direct and immediate impact on the impression made by the organization. With a comprehensive crisis management plan, board members can move to decision-making much faster than if they had to start from zero.

Resource Mobilization

Those who opt for and are selected for board service bring experience and connections to the table — and a crisis is the time to use both. How quickly and thoroughly boards leverage their networks and resources during crises can minimize disruption and long-term harm to operations and reputation.

Communication and Stakeholder Relations

In the face of instant social media posting and an energetic news cycle, boards must keep two-way communications open with stakeholders and the public, and be ready to respond rapidly.

With these responsibilities in mind, it may be surprising that less than half of surveyed companies have a formal crisis communications plan, Forbes reported. It is always the right time to either create a plan or further develop an incomplete plan, and, for today’s nonprofits, this effort should take priority.

How to Develop Your Organization’s Crisis Management Plan

Whether starting from scratch (with the help of a toolkit) or enhancing an existing plan, follow these steps to maximize the likelihood of success.

Ensure Board Involvement Throughout the Process

Depending on the size of the organization and the existing time demands on the board, it may make sense to let staff take the lead early. But with the board’s oversight role, trustees’ active participation in the plan’s development is nonnegotiable.

Engaging virtual meetings and tools with automated notification capabilities can make plan development more manageable for busy leaders. (Learn more about virtual meetings during a crisis.)

Conduct an Assessment and Identify Risk

Some types of risk are more obvious — and more likely — than others. Associations with stringent and tested fiscal policies may have less worry about internal bad actors, for example. Other risks more likely depend on geography, mission focus and cultural climate. Employ tools that allow for secure and frank communication around these sensitive topics.

Collaborate Effectively

Good collaboration is always necessary for mission-driven boards, but it is especially important when it comes to protecting the organization’s day-to-day operations. The many documents used to develop your plan can quickly become unwieldy, and the approval process complex.

By employing intuitive document management and clear workflows, organization leaders can minimize confusion and emphasize effective discussion and decision-making.

Ensure the Right Elements Are Included

A robust crisis management plan consists of many parts: roles and responsibilities, communication strategies, and decision-making processes. Using intuitivetask workflows and notifications, it will be easier to keep track of where these documents are in the development cycle.

Incorporate Testing, Training and Education

Simulations and tabletop scenarios are mandatory elements for battle-testing a plan. But ongoing communication and education — of directors and staff at all levels — is necessary to ensure the entire organization is ready to respond when (not if) a crisis emerges.

Build In Continuous Improvement

A crisis management plan is no static effort. Changes in the organization (staff departures, reorganization) or the environment around the organization can spur regular changes.

How Technology Supports a Crisis Response Plan

When a board is ready to tackle a new or revised crisis plan, board management software can be an invaluable aid. A high-quality, robust platform can enable virtual meetings, automated notifications, intuitive document management and task workflows, granular permissions, and strong security protocols — all elements that boards and organizations need to tackle any crisis with confidence.

BoardEffect is designed with the unique needs of volunteer boards in mind. Our nonprofit board management software streamlines board processes, enhances communication and promotes accountability, helping you to become an efficient and effective board during a crisis.

Jennifer Rose Hale

Jennifer Rose Hale has over 20 years' experience with digital and employee communications in for- and nonprofit environments. Her writing and client areas of expertise include education, finance, science and technology.

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