Preparing for Crisis

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The first step in developing a crisis management plan is brainstorming your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats - also known as a SWOT analysis. Once you have identified your organization's vulnerabilities, the next step is to form a crisis management team to think through how to mitigate plausible threats.

Conduct a SWOT analysis - the first step to preparing a general crisis response plan.

To make your organization as crisis-ready as possible, create a crisis response plan. The first step in developing this plan is to conduct a SWOT analysis.

Conducting a SWOT analysis is a good way to determine which possible crises are both plausible and would pose a serious threat. A SWOT analysis examines an organization's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This is best done with a group of key employees, volunteers, or supporters of your organization. Special attention should be paid to the weaknesses and threats you identify. Examine those threats and weaknesses to identify which crises are most likely to confront your organization. Is your office located in a flood zone? Is the current economic or political climate unstable? Do your activities open your organization up to litigation or negative media attention?  Is it plausible that your organization may experience a major, disruptive change such as the departure of the executive director or the end of funding for a major initiative?

Once a list of plausible crises is assembled, the group should then brainstorm what would happen to the organization were the crisis to take place. What would be the cost in terms of money, assets, reputation, or the well-being of staff, clients, and volunteers? How could these effects be minimized or mitigated? Asking these questions will start the process of formulating a crisis response plan.

The U.S. Small Business Administration's Introduction to Strategic Planning contains a chapter on conducting a SWOT Analysis. Click the link above link to learn more about conducting a SWOT Analysis.

Form a crisis management team as a core part of your crisis response plan.

This team should number five to seven people, comprising board members, staff, volunteers, or friends. The plan should detail what responsibilities each member of the team would handle in the event of a crisis.   The following roles should be included in the plan:

  • Decision maker: For most organizations, the default decssion maker is the executive director. Consider designating a back-up decision maker in the event that the executive director must focus his/her energy as a spokesperson or to other duties. The decision maker should be equipped with a checklist of what bare essentials are necessary to resume operations in the event of a major disruption. 
  • Spokesperson: Crises of a public nature require careful attention to presenting the public face of the organization.  Not all crises will have this level of public visibility, but for those that would, think carefully about who is best suited to portray your organization in the best light.
  • Internal communications manager:  Someone with a good sense of who will be affected by the crisis should be accountable for ensuring that the internal communication component of the crisis management plan is executed and that staff, volunteers, and other key players with any information they may need.  For example, if a natural disaster has forced a nonprofit to evacuate its facilities, how will clients know if services are still available, or where to go to find them? How will regular donors be informed if the organization needs emergency funds? How will staff know where to report to work?

The internal communications manager should ensure that an updated contact list is copied and stored somewhere off-site. Uploading it to a website can be a useful option, though a physical copy should also be made available. The plan should clearly state who will be responsible for accessing this list and what methods they will use to see that necessary information is delivered.

Assemble the crisis management team and put the plan into action.

Depending on the exact nature of the crisis, the crisis management team should determine how much detail is appropriate for different stakeholder groups to know, from board members to staff, volunteers, media, clients, or funders. The team should determine what methods of communication will be used for each group, whether a personal phone call or a notice on the organization's website. If bad news needs to be delivered to any of these parties, it is best done all at once, rather than doled out over time. The team should also anticipate that, in any crisis, there is likely to be a proliferation of rumors and exaggerations. Steps should be taken to correct these as quickly and effectively as possible.

It is important to remind staff that all media inquiries should be routed to the official spokesperson. Emphasize this by informing them that there could be serious consequences for failing to adhere to the policy. When dealing with the media, the spokesperson should always be honest and proactive. It is helpful for the spokesperson to make a summary of the known facts of the situation on a regular basis and continue to update media contacts as it evolves.

Click to open interactivity In the event of a crisis, having a crisis management plan can ease the rigors.

In the event of a crisis, having a crisis management plan can ease the rigors.

Click here to download a sample crisis communication plan, provided by the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

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It is vitally important that leaders and decision makers remain as calm as possible.

One of the most challenging aspects of any stressful situation is handling one's own emotions, which can include fear of disaster, avoidance, over-optimism, or defeat. Even in a time-crunch,  it is vitally important that leaders take moments to self-reflect.  Key questions to ask onself during these times include:

  • How am I feeling? (Overhwlemed? Panicked? Confident? Scared?)
  • How are my feelings affecting my actions?
  • What is in my control, and what is not?
  • What information / advice do I still need to make good decisions?
  • Am I prioritizing effectively?
  • Is our response true to the organization's mission?
  • Is our response considerate of the health, well-being, safety and interests of our clients, staff, volunteers and others affected by the crisis?

An important priority, especially in situations where a crisis is likely to extend over a long period of time, is for leaders to take care of themselves. Since key decision makers are the ones in the position of greatest responsibility, they are often carrying more than their share of stress. They should sleep regularly, eat a balanced diet, take breaks, and make time for exercise.

With a good system for communicating with key players in place, and with leaders allowing themselves time to reflect and care for their physical and emotional health, an organization will be well-placed to respond effectively to even the most unexpected and disruptive situations. The exact nature of those responses will obviously be dictated by the type of crisis the nonprofit is confronting, but certain key considerations should always remain at the heart of the decision-making process.

Your response process should not end once normal operations have resumed.

It is very important that, once the dust has settled, an effort is made to review the crisis event and see what can be learned from it. Taking time for this will help ensure that your organization is even more prepared for the next crisis, if one should occur.
Gather together key players or, in smaller nonprofits, your entire staff. In an open, judgment-free setting, ask the following questions:

  • What were the early warning signs of the crisis?
  • Could we have recognized it sooner?
  • What were the organization's weaknesses and vulnerable points that led to the crisis?
  • Did we follow our crisis management plan and, if so, was it effective?
  • If we did not follow our crisis management plan, why not?
  • How effective was our response?
  • How effective were our communications?
  • Did we have the right people on our response team?
  • How well did our leaders function?
  • What could we have done differently?
  • How can we better prepare for a similar situation in the future?

Another important step at the end of any crisis is to make an effort to give all those involved a sense of closure. In smaller organizations, the executive director or manager could go to each employee or department and discuss with them what occurred. They should provide an honest picture of what happened, thank everyone for their efforts, and outline plans for moving forward. In some cases, an appropriate gathering to mark the end of the crisis and re-energize people about the next phase could be beneficial.

Finally, the organization should make sure to compile a complete record of what happened. If a similar event occurs in the future, this information will be an invaluable resource.