Crisis Management: How Two Nonprofits Handled Crisis—and Why You Need to Be Prepared
On the morning of Jan. 13, 2015, Kim Jones was killed at a bus stop just outside Temple University’s campus. The 56-year-old mother-of-two was on her way to work at Turning Points for Children—the Philadelphia youth-advocacy nonprofit where she served as a program director—when a masked gunman approached from behind, fired a single shot into the back of her head and walked away.
Authorities immediately ruled out robbery—Philly.com reported that all of Jones’ valuables were still on her when police arrived. It allegedly was a planned assault, carried out in broad daylight by an attacker who, as security footage would show, took care to avoid cameras and remain concealed. It was an execution.
In the days following the homicide, investigators pored over surveillance video, tracing the shooter’s path from the crime scene back to a 2007 GMC Yukon. The vehicle belonged to 36-year-old Philadelphia native Randolph Sanders. Detectives had heard his name before.
Sanders worked for Turning Points for Children. Jones had hired him.
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Even in Philadelphia, a city with a homicide rate more than three times the national average, the initial news of Jones’ death made local headlines. It was a brutal crime, and rumors that it was work-related—there was speculation that Jones was somehow involved in separating children from families—while ultimately untrue, put Turning Points for Children in the media spotlight.
Turning Points for Children, for its part, responded well. It reacted quickly in the immediate aftermath of the killing, informing staff and the board of directors, bringing in grief counselors to meet with employees, and setting up a makeshift war-room where human resources and communications teams could monitor television reports and develop a strategy for dealing with the press. The organization had done everything right. But it couldn’t prepare for what came next.
Police arrested Sanders on Feb. 2, three weeks after the killing. He confessed, and almost immediately the details started to emerge. In 2012, Jones hired Sanders as assistant director of Turning Points for Children’s Families and Schools Together (FAST) after-school program. According to investigators, Jones had begun to suspect that Sanders was stealing funds from the nonprofit. The morning of the homicide, Jones had a meeting scheduled with the Department of Human Services (the organization that funds Turning Points for Children) and Sanders allegedly believed she was going to turn him in. “He laid in wait, and he ambushed her,” said Philadelphia Homicide Captain James Clark in a statement. Then, according to Philly.com, Sanders gave a television interview the day after the slaying—“We’re all just stunned, just stunned, just stunned,” he told 6ABC News Philadelphia—and attended Jones’ funeral.
Turning Points for Children was blindsided. “Quite honestly, one of the things we did not anticipate was that the perpetrator would have been one of us,” said Mike Vogel, the organization’s CEO. “We work in a business where we care about our clients and we care about one another, and it was just kind of not on our radar that it could have played out the way it did—especially when that person grieved with us, speculated with us on who could have done such a thing, went to Kim’s funeral. All those things played out negatively in our minds. The day that the police ended up arresting Randolph, I spent a good part of the day trying to convince them that they had the wrong person, because I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”
The story made national news. And as the media circled and headlines mounted, it became clear that Turning Points for Children—still reeling from Jones’ death—had an even bigger crisis on its hands. Its mission was at risk. “Every time Jones’ name was brought up in the press, Turning Points for Children was mentioned as her employer,” explained Brian Goldthorpe, president of Privileged Communication, the Washington, D.C.-based communications and strategy firm that would help develop Turning Points for Children’s crisis communications plan. “Where the organization was in the habit of developing good, positive, proactive press and sharing its stories with the media, if you Googled them, all you would find was information about the [killing.] So, all of Turning Points’ efforts to get its narrative out there became problematic.”