Nonprofit 411: Top 10 Crisis Response Steps

By Chris Dame, Interim Executive SolutionsCD-51

Uh oh. Something has gone wrong at your nonprofit organization.  It could be a crisis.  You need to manage the crisis, contain the damage and emerge to continue your mission’s work.  Interim Executive Solutions Partner Chris Dame brings over 25 years of managing nonprofits and handling crises, both large and small.  Here, condensed for you, is his “Top 10 Crisis Response Steps” list.

(Print out a condensed version for your office here:


  1. Face the Facts:

First, make sure YOU know the facts.  Don’t depend on hearsay.  Gather as much data as possible- times, actions, participants, outcomes – from a range of key sources.  Conduct an independent investigation.  Trust but verify!

Assess the information on the following four issues.  First, what “bad habits” (gaps in operations, in policies, in training) can you identify?  Where there initial assumptions you made that turned out not to be correct?  Were there people, staff, clients, others, that were less than honest or behaved badly?  Did decisions get made that should have been made differently?

Follow the money.  Get professional help if needed.  Pay bills as promised, as much as possible.  Rebuild financial credibility.

  1. Admit Culpability

Acknowledge your mistakes.  Apologize as appropriate. Let stakeholders know that you are aiming for a fresh start. Repeat often:  “That was then.  This is NOW.”

  1. Build a Plan.  Share it Widely

Revisit the organization’s “mission statement”.  Is it still operational?  Is it still appropriate for the organization? If the organization’s operations no longer fit the mission, or if the mission statement no longer reflects the purposes of the organization – then revise the mission statement as needed.

Identify the steps and timeline for “success”.  What stakeholders should be involved.  Determine how long it will take to create.  What changes will be required in the organization and how much will it cost. Where will the funds come from?  What measurements or conditions will let us know we are successful.

Post the plan.   Use the organization’s website, email, Facebook, Twitter and newsletters to let your community and stakeholders know about progress.  Use internal staff bulletin boards to let staff know about progress and expectations.  Prepare, send, and retain copies of official written reports to Board, funders and other key stakeholders.   Keep local press informed of progress.

Adapt to events.  Abandon unworkable elements quickly.  Explain changes, why they’re necessary, apologize as necessary for confusion.  Restate the plan and schedule.

  1. Make a Change:  Take Bold Action Early

Take positive actions.  Find at least one good, useful thing to do and DO IT ASAP.  Seek new programs, fresh ideas, new activities. Take negative actions.   Separate troublemakers.  End money losing programs, no matter how popular.

  1. Strengthen Governance

Improve structure and processes within Board of Directors.  Review and update as necessary the By Laws and Articles of Incorporation.  Convene regular and frequent BoD meetings, including BoD committees.  Pay special attention to the Finance Committee.  Recruit new Board members.  Build a written record of meetings, decisions and participants using minutes.  Post and circulate minutes.

Use technology to support Board activities.  Establish a private location for communicating with Board members and storing Board records, policies, legal documents, committee and sub-committee meetings.  Tools could include Dropbox, Slack, Doodle Poll, Skype, GoToMeeting, group email,  or other comparable technologies.  Make it easy for Board members to stay in touch.  Use conference calls for committees.  Allow call ins for Board meetings.

Reflect and communicate.  Require a unified voice.  Respect the Board Chair role.  Conduct an honest and objective Board self-assessment.  Thank Board members regularly.  It can be a thankless job.

  1. Upgrade Staff

Improve staff structures and processes.  Select and use an objective, formal performance evaluation tool for staff members, implemented quarterly.  Improve staff leadership skills among middle and senior level managers.  Find ways to identify and relieve staff anxiety.  Find ways to engage staff in the future of the organization.

  1. Rebuild Funder Relations

Improve communications with funding organizations as well as local government contacts and supporting businesses.  Present the plan and proposed schedule to these groups in person.  Make promises.  Keep promises.  Maintain contact.  Be clear that there will be a cost to service replacement and remind them they, too, have an investment.  Communicate that they have a role as “turn around” agents.  If the plan is successful, they will share that success.

  1. Check Your Legal Back

Find a good lawyer.  Cooperate with law enforcement.  Attend to human resources issues within the organization.  Anticipate and block internal staff conflicts, finger pointing, claims against fellow staff.  Stand firm against external actors attempting to cause additional problems within the organization or file claims against the organization.

  1. Talk to the Press. Communicate. Communicate.

Request a meeting with editors, bloggers, etc. that have been critical.  Have friends of the organization communicate progress through letters to the editors.  Create positive news events and broadcast via press releases.  Use a wide range of news vehicles:  radio, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blog posts…. as appropriate.

Ask funders and related stakeholders to communicate positive news to the press.  Involve staff in community relations.  Tell your story to your clients.

  1. Use Core Values to Move to a Bright Future

Articulate Core Values.  Talk about them with staff.  What do we do best?  What is important about how we do it?  Identify what it takes to get to our highest and best performance.  Unify staff members and Board members in a common future vision.  Seek and identify new leadership to get there.  Choose a new leader, establish a succession plan, describe a new future.