Crisis Management: How Two Nonprofits Handled Crisis—and Why You Need to Be Prepared
TELL IT ALL, TELL IT EARLY
A step-by-step plan for crisis management might go something like this: (1) Gather the CEO, legal counsel and communications support staff. (2) Contact and work with law enforcement. (3) Inform the board. (4) Prepare and distribute media statements. (5) Connect with staff and volunteers.
Turning Points for Children had checked off those steps in order. But now, it needed to revisit No. 4 and No. 5. It needed to take control of its external messaging, and to do so, it first had to get its internal communications in order. “By far the most challenging component of dealing with a crisis and the fallout of a crisis for a nonprofit is internal communication,” said Goldthorpe. “So, regardless of what you see externally, it’s far more complicated to make sure that staff has an accurate understanding of how to move forward, that they have the necessary messages that are consistent with the messages being distributed to the press. You have to start the work of internal communication and messaging early, and you have to do it often.
“It’s important to create a messaging platform from an internal standpoint that is shared and understood, and that staff is given the tools from the top down to make sure they can communicate effectively and also so they know when to defer questions,” Goldthorpe added. “It’s not necessary for all staff to respond to every inquiry they get. So making sure there’s a clear understanding of what that protocol looks like is an important part of the process.”
Here, Turning Points for Children had been prepared. “We’d always been clear that the executive director or CEO or whoever would be the spokesperson, and we’ve periodically reminded staff about that,” said Vogel. “In our business it’s not inconceivable that negative things happen out on the street. We have social workers who are assaulted by angry parents. We have children who go missing or are tragically injured or die. So we remind staff that they have to be on guard in a highly emotional time, that if a member of the media catches them off-guard on the street, they should say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not authorized to comment, but contact the organization,’ and to funnel those requests to me.”
With its staff and volunteers informed, Turning Points for Children turned its attention to the media. Because the police investigation was ongoing, the nonprofit had to tread lightly, providing enough information to the press without giving away details that could undermine the district attorney’s case later on. But otherwise, Turning Points for Children was proactive. It enlisted communications experts at Public Health Management Corporation (Turning Points for Children's parent organization), who were instrumental in helping Vogel and his team respond to media inquiries and draft statements as new details emerged. It hired a forensic accountant to conduct an independent audit of its books and assure stakeholders that Sanders’ stolen funds were an isolated incident. And it worked with outside communications firms to develop messaging that kept the focus on the organization’s work and accomplishments, actively reaching out to reporters for follow-up stories.
“There’s a reason why I consider them a success story,” said Goldthorpe. “One is that they’ve continued to grow and thrive in the wake of this crisis, even as the investigation and potentially upcoming trial is forthcoming. They’ve figured out how to recover and respond, and put the focus back on the mission of the organization and the good work that they do. The other reason I consider it a success story is that they truly engaged with me. It is impossible if you’re someone in my position to do the work for an organization on their behalf—they’ve got to be active participants.”
“The general rule—and you hear this a lot—is that you need to tell it all, tell it consistently and tell it early,” he added. “You need to get out in front of the story. And there’s a reason. In this day and age, if people have a long enough time to look at a problem and to investigate it, explore it and research it, eventually the truth is going to come out.”