Opinion

To Avoid a Crisis, Nonprofits Should Prepare and Know Their Mission

crisis planning: Closeup of tired office employee sitting at her workplace, head in hands, with laptop in room with gray walls.

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The notion that a noble mission and a track record of good deeds can shield an organization and its brand from crisis is a myth.

Many organizations are woefully unprepared to handle a crisis and as a result make the original issue worse with poorly executed responses. While it is my experience that not-for-profits are generally less prepared than for-profit corporations, established brands such as Starbucks, Pepsi, United and Uber prove that even they can turn a small crisis into something much bigger thanks to their own poor planning and ill-advised actions.

crisis planning: Daniel Hill (headshot), founder, CEO of Hill Impact, smiling man with gray hair, glasses, dark jacket, white shirt

Daniel Hill

As a communications professional who has spent more than two decades helping organizations build their brands and then defend them in the face of a crisis, I can tell you that a lack of preparedness rests squarely on the shoulders of the leadership team, notably the CEO or executive director.

Part of being an effective leader, in my opinion, is ensuring that your team is ready and trained to respond to a crisis. An organization cannot fulfill its charter when distracted by the pandemonium that ensues when processes, procedures, systems and training to handle a challenging situation are not in place.

When working with a new client I start with an elaborate truism I developed over my career, something that can help any organization avoid untold trouble:

DON’T DO STUPID THINGS.

Well … it’s true!

Crises don’t just happen, they are generally manufactured by the actions of individuals within a system.

Beware things going too well

Broadly, the issues that trip up most organizations, especially not-for-profits, are gaps in governance, conflicts of interest, mission creep (taking on projects that do not fit the current mission), underperformance on commitments, gaps in safety and culture issues born from a lack of diversity or a pervasive absence of respect and decency.

Sure, it’s a long list, representing the antithesis of a gold standard institution. The trap is that when things are going well is when an organization is perhaps most vulnerable to a crisis, as complacency can often set in.

Avoiding a crisis in the first place is obviously the best line of defense for your brand; the good news is that doing what it takes to mitigate that risk will make your organization better. Take a day and pull your team together to talk through the things that might toss your enterprise into the public spotlight:

  • Is there a relationship on the board that could appear to be a conflict of interest?
  • Are you pursuing a grant that would require you to step outside your area of expertise?
  • Can you detect any patterns related to safety, wellness or human resource issues?
  • Do your stakeholders believe you are upholding your commitments?

What’s your mission?

Among the most important exercises in crisis mitigation is taking a deep dive into the organization’s mission and values. Does the mission accurately reflect the state of your enterprise today? Are your stated values consistent with the brand and culture you seek to build — are they visible in the actions and behaviors of the team?

More often than not, when I am called in to advise a board or leadership team, I find that the organization has evolved past its charter and failed to go back to update it. Or, worse, it stepped outside its purpose in pursuit of market share, funding, publicity or unknowingly as the mission just isn’t part of the day-to-day conversation internally.

Take a look at some of the crises that faced United Airlines, including the gentleman dragged off the plane after being bloodied by local police. The company’s initial responses were all about policies when the real answer resided on their website under the tab entitled values. There you would find that one of the values the company aspires to is “we fly friendly.” Was United upholding its value to fly friendly that day?

I am regularly asked if we see an increase in crises today because organizations are doing more dumb things or is the public just more aware of them because of increasing transparency thanks to the Internet. The answer could be both, but most certainly part two of the question is a major factor for several reasons: pervasive distrust of institutions; increased access to information; the 24-hour news cycle, and social media platforms that allow a spark to ignite into a blaze instantaneously.

We see it all the time: A few angry people — not even stakeholders — whip up others to join in a fight against an organization. Sadly, what is positioned as “accountability” by those demanding answers and tweeting “heads must roll,” is often more about inflicting pain — “trolling” for a reaction and being part of a movement.

It’s complicated

All these factors make crisis preparedness more important that ever, while also making it more complex. There are no boilerplate plans that work because every organization is different and there is no way to predict every possible scenario. Developing the proper plan takes time and the attention of senior leaders. Rather than working to prepare for every possible circumstance, I believe in an approach that prepares for any situation — in other words, the plan is always the same — adaptable, nimble, responsive.

While there are no cookie-cutter solutions, I will leave you with a few pointers. All organizations make mistakes. The key isn’t to be perfect, though that would be nice. The more realistic objective is to learn from your missteps and to instill a value of continuous improvement. To do those things well means establishing a best practices mantra and formalizing the steps that go into examining mishaps and ensuring that lessons are always learned. When the media and Facebook users are hounding you over an issue, it is appropriate to show that you take it seriously by communicating your commitment to best practices while also mentioning your process to continuously improve.

Earlier I said, partly tongue in cheek, to simply avoid “doing stupid things.” While nothing could be more true, the fact is that bad things happen to great organizations. A crisis will happen. Perhaps it already has. When it does, it will define you, either for the good or for the bad. A comprehensive crisis preparedness plan, training and the commitment of senior leaders will ensure that a crisis is just another opportunity to learn, grow and improve.

Dan Hill is the founder and CEO of the international communications firm Hill Impact. He’s one of the country’s most sought-after experts on brand, reputation and crisis.

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