Crisis Management: How Two Nonprofits Handled Crisis—and Why You Need to Be Prepared
HAVE A PLAN
For nonprofits, crisis comes in many forms. Criminal activity. Data breach. Misappropriation of funds. Natural disaster. “Honestly, it’s not whether a nonprofit will ever have a crisis that becomes front page news—it’s a matter of when it will happen,” said Joanne Fritz, nonprofit expert at About.com and former development director for the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis.
In 1984, Fritz was a rookie development officer for the Girl Scouts. Early that year, more than 850 cases of tampering—pins, needles and glass inside Girl Scout cookies—were reported to authorities, leading to widespread panic in the media and forcing the organization to halt cookie sales in Chicago, St. Louis and other areas. The accusations were ultimately proven false, but they brought with them bad publicity on a nationwide scale.
“We took the financial hit and put public safety first,” Fritz said. “The FBI and FDA got involved, and we cooperated fully. We had an excellent board president who became one of our spokespersons, and enjoyed great support throughout the community. We talked to every reporter who called—and this was a national story—and kept everyone updated on what we knew. As a result, we were able to recoup most of the money we lost through a fundraising campaign and enjoyed a successful cookie sale the following year.”
The Girl Scouts were lucky. The organization had no plan. According to Fritz, it “managed to make the right moves just by doing the right thing.” But the experience shaped Fritz’s understanding of crisis management. “Nonprofits should take crisis management very seriously,” she said. “Before anything happens, imagine likely scenarios and prepare steps that can be applied to any situation. Decide who will be in charge of gathering the facts, who will serve as spokesperson. Get media training for top management. Know how you’ll handle physical threats such as a gunman, a natural disaster or an accident. Have policies in place for likely problems.”
“When a crisis happens, talk to the press. Don’t hide,” she continued. “At the beginning, you may have to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’ That’s better than nothing. The media will fill any dead air. The best defense is to keep good solid information flowing out. Run toward the crisis, not away from it. Tell the truth. It will hurt, but that’s better than being found out later.”
And that’s the big lesson. As the Girl Scouts, Turning Points for Children and countless other nonprofits have shown, crisis comes in ways that are impossible to imagine. It’s up to the organization to be proactive and transparent—to have a plan. “Every organization has to have a crisis management and crisis communication plan in place,” said Goldthorpe. “And this plan needs to be something that is accessible to staff members, and needs to be considered as important as an organization’s risk management plan and quality assurance plan. In the litany of policies and procedures that dictate how a nonprofit functions, that’s where a crisis communications piece needs to sit. It shouldn’t be considered something that’s extra or special—it needs to be considered a part of the fabric of the organization.”