“I Spent the Night in My Car” — Lessons in Crisis Response

by Josh Jacobson
As I sit here writing this, most Carolinians are waking up to bright sunshine and temperatures in the low 50s.  Our dog Miyagi is bouncing off the walls because she knows the mild weather will mean a long walk around the neighborhood.

What a nice change of pace after a January that saw some pretty dicey weather-related challenges.  While many of my former colleagues in the northeast would scoff at such a notion, the issue hasn’t been extreme temperatures (for comparison, it is currently 1 degree in Duluth, Minnesota), but how woefully under-prepared cities in the South are for sub-freezing weather.

Just last week, Atlanta learned the hard way how just a little bit of snow and ice could bring a city to its knees.  A near perfect storm of mistakes and miscalculations followed (pun intended), and for the better part of a week Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal were fixtures of the morning news circuit.  The most compelling stories came from commuters who were stuck on the freeway in their cars overnight, or who abandoned their cars and trudged 5-6 miles in the ice and snow to reach the warmth of civilization.  A public relations disaster, to say the least.

We are never fully prepared for a crisis when it hits, as it rips us out of whatever we were doing and demands our full attention.  But I find nonprofits are particularly susceptible to poor crisis response – I can’t tell you how rare it is to find any sort of crisis communication plan in place, or one that is dusted off occasionally to accommodate new advancements in communication (how does one handle a particularly awful review on Yelp?).

DeficitMost nonprofits are unlikely to experience the sort of negative attention that comes with a debacle like the response to the weather in Atlanta. However, most organizations will experience a different sort of crisis at least occasionally – the dreaded shortfall in the operating budget.  How your organization handles the situation says a lot about your leadership, integrity and management protocols.

When an organization realizes that it is unlikely to hit its revenue goals, or experiences unexpected expenses that threaten operations, donors too often hear about it from a third party or read about it first in the local newspaper.  Why keep your donors in the dark about your financial troubles – embarrassment? Aren’t these the same people you will look to engage to help you out of your current situation?  Before considering your statement to the public via media channels, think first of a strategy for communicating with those individuals, companies and foundations that make a difference to your bottom line, and consider the following communication points:

  • Take the Blame and Explain Why – Your donors support you because they care about your mission.  They are very likely to forgive whatever caused the current crisis – but they want and need to understand how and why it occurred.  While you may have carefully scripted language for the broader public, someone in your organization should step up and accept responsibility to the organization’s most influential stakeholders.  Meet in person or by phone with important donors and past board leaders to explain the current situation simply and with straightforward language.

I was quite impressed with how Cathy Templeton, Executive Director of the Community Arts Project in Cornelius, North Carolina, handled recent front-page coverage of her organization’s financial troubles. “The revenue streams we projected didn’t happen,” she noted, acknowledging that a recent move had a greater impact than anticipated. “We didn’t see ourselves as a start-up because we had been here for 15 years, but it was still more like a start-up than expected…” While other groups may have blamed the economy or other outside factors, she wisely saw good reason to level with the community about how the current crisis came to be. As a donor to their cause, I would want to know how we got to this point were I to contribute again.

  • Detail What You Have Learned – Acknowledging that mistakes were made is only meaningful if you follow that up by explaining how you will avoid making them in the future. Just like any investor, your donors will want to know that history will not repeat itself.  This needs to be more than just a talking point – if this happens again (and again and again), your donor community is unlikely to keep rallying to your cause.

Atlanta remains ill-equipped to deal with such weather emergencies, this despite the fact that the city experienced a similar snow-related crisis just three years ago.  The headlines from early January 2011 were eerily similar to ones from this past week.  Back then, the city responded by increasing the number of snow response equipment, but did not create a plan to avoid congestion on the freeway system.  The creation of such a plan was a central talking point for both Mayor Reed and Governor Deal, though neither seemed willing to take responsibility for this failing.

  • Show Genuine Gratitude – Surprise! Your donors are not obligated to bail your organization out when it finds itself in a financial crisis.  When a donor does decide to help you at your time of need, that individual deserves more than just a form letter detailing tax deductibility.  These individuals are clearly very devoted to your mission, and should be thanked personally for making a special effort.

I’ll never forget an interview I had with a major donor to a past client, who shook his head when I asked if he felt adequately acknowledged by the organization.  It was as if the organization came to expect the gift annually, and when the gift dipped slightly during the downturn, he felt as if he was letting the organization down – this despite more than a decade of significant investment!  Staff can sometimes get so caught up in their fundraising challenges, that they forget what amazing acts of charity such gifts are to a nonprofit’s cause.

Thankfully, nonprofit management is more often smooth sailing than choppy waters, but being prepared for the unexpected is essential.  I’d say more on this subject, but Miyagi really wants to go for that walk!

Three Action Steps for the Week:

  1. Do you have an crisis communication plan? If so, dust it off and consider areas in need of focus. If not, search the Internet for plans from organizations with similar missions.
  2. If a crisis were to hit, who are the top 10 donors you would contact personally? How about five past board members?
  3. If you are concerned with your own financial sustainability this fiscal year, how would you explain why it happened and what you would do differently in the future?

Image Credits: Featured Image (123RF – Robert Crum), Deficit (123RF – Bram Janssens)

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