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Navigating the Storm: Effective Crisis Management for Nonprofit Leaders

In the world of nonprofit leadership, challenges are inevitable. From unforeseen emergencies to unexpected public relations crises, nonprofit organizations must be prepared to navigate the stormiest of waters. The ability to effectively manage crises is not just a valuable skill; it's a critical component of leadership. In this blog post, we'll explore the principles and strategies of crisis management for nonprofit leaders, helping you steer your organization through turbulent times with resilience and poise.

Graphic of a man in a suit blocking domino like cascade with viruses, money and downward pointing arrow in the air
Image by storyset on Freepik

Crisis management is not about avoiding challenges (although that’s another important skill;) it's about responding to them in a way that preserves your organization's integrity, mission, and reputation. In the nonprofit sector, where trust and credibility are paramount, effective crisis management is non-negotiable.

Key Principles of Crisis Management

Preparation is Key

The first rule of crisis management is to be prepared. Develop a comprehensive crisis management plan that outlines roles, responsibilities, and communication protocols. Identify potential risks and scenarios that could impact your organization. Make sure that this plan is shared with all relevant board members and employees; it won’t do any good if people don’t know where to find it or when to use it.

Transparent Communication

When a crisis hits, transparency is your greatest ally. Promptly communicate with all stakeholders, including staff, donors, beneficiaries, and the public. Provide accurate and honest information while acknowledging the situation. This candor is critical in maintaining trust, which is fundamental to both fundraising and the relationships an organization maintains with the communities it serves. Recent research by PWC showed that “71% of employees say they’ll leave a company if it loses their trust.”

Swift Decision-Making

In a crisis, time is of the essence. Make decisions promptly but thoughtfully. Consider the potential impact of each decision on your organization's mission and values. Practicing this decision making process in more peaceful times will equip leaders to better handle the stress of decision making in times of crisis. Studies show that there’s little need to worry that quicker decisions might be less well thought out. In fact, a McKinsey report revealed that “organizations that make decisions quickly are twice as likely to make high-quality decisions, compared with the slow decision makers.”

Empathetic Leadership

Show empathy and compassion towards those affected by the crisis, whether they are staff members, beneficiaries, or donors. It’s important that actions align with empathetic statements. Compassionate leadership can appear in a variety of ways including asking what people need, providing space for listening and acknowledgement, and equipping people with the resources they need to help themselves. Empathetic leadership fosters trust and unity during challenging times.

Media and Social Media Management

Social media can be a very useful tool during emergencies, and it’s important to monitor and manage media and social media channels carefully. Designate a spokesperson in advance. Respond to inquiries and address inaccuracies promptly. Don’t disclose too much while an investigation is still active. Wait until you have the facts so that you don’t have to issue apologies or corrections, as those can erode trust.

Resource Allocation

Allocate resources wisely to address the crisis. This means ensuring that resources are used efficiently to mitigate the impact as much as possible. This may involve reallocating budgets, tapping into reserves, or seeking external support. Depending on the crisis, some organizations may see an influx of funding, while others see a significant decrease. Examples of this include Black Lives Matter raising $90 million in response to the racial justice protests that took place over the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, while that same year amid the COVID-19 pandemic arts nonprofits saw a median decline in revenue of 50 percent. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to keep the long term sustainability of the organization as the priority.

Continuous Evaluation

As the crisis unfolds, continuously evaluate the situation and adjust your response as needed. What works in the early stages may need modification as circumstances evolve. In medical terms, this may be compared to going from triage work to the hospital emergency room to long term care.

Learning and Adaptation

After the crisis has passed, conduct a thorough post-crisis review. Identify lessons learned and areas for improvement in your crisis management plan. It is key to assess accountability in this review and determine actionable steps to better prepare for future crises. These insights will ultimately enhance your organization's resilience.

To Conclude

Crisis management is a fundamental aspect of nonprofit leadership. By following the key principles of preparation, transparent communication, swift decision-making, empathetic leadership, media management, resource allocation, continuous evaluation, and learning, nonprofit leaders can navigate crises with resilience and protect the mission and values of their organizations.

Crises are often considered a test of leadership capabilities. In order to be an effective leader one must successfully manage their organization through the storm. CALO’s peer advisory forums provide a supportive environment for nonprofit leaders to share insights, experiences, and best practices, including effective crisis management strategies, as well as simply being there for one another in challenging times when there are few others who may understand your exact situation. Together, we can weather the storm and emerge stronger, ready to continue making a positive impact on society.

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