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.
- - -
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.”
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.”
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.”