And what do you do?

Weird and damaging events can happen, even to happy-go-lucky nonprofits. As Seth Godin notes in this post, complaining about poor communications during a recent city-stopping three-inch rainfall plus tornado in NYC, some things just can't be predicted.

But to paraphrase his advice: you can be really good at communicating with people when they happen. Bottom line: Rehearse your crisis communications strategy!

Does your nonprofit have a plan in place for how it will communicate if an organizational disaster strikes? Such as …

  • Your Prez or Executive Director has been found to be financing his swimming pool from his expense account.
  • Three trustees have just resigned in very public protest over the direction of your organization.
  • Your biggest and most prominent donor just died (without leaving your org in her will) and you'll be laying off a quarter of your staff immediately.
  • It's just revealed that one of your trustees has been earning lucrative fees while poorly managing your org's endowment.
  • A front-page article claims your most important program initiative is a complete failure.

Obviously some of these examples, were they to materialize, should NOT come as total surprises.

That's the first rule of contingency planning … think about risks and conduct explicit scenario planning about them.

But to Godin's point, what about the true “act of god”?

Knowing what to communicate, how to do it (who, what channels, in what style, etc.) and to whom are fundamental building blocks of a contingency plan that can be charted and even rehearsed in advance.

The higher your public profile, the farther you can fall.

Effective communications cannot erase the actual malfeasance or lapse that has occurred. Obviously the substance must be dealt with. But how your stakeholders perceive you to be addressing the situation is critical to earning the space needed to rectify the problem. Another case where style can become substance.

Don't think this is pertinent to nonprofits?

Ask the United Way, Nature Conservancy, Red Cross, Smithsonian, ACLU …

Roger & Tom

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