5 Steps to Crisis Management Nonprofits can learn from Emergency Managers

crisis image ropeJust imagine, your organization is humming along, donations are at par with your goals, your staff is happy and motivated, and there is genuine synergy among stakeholders. What if this good situation were to go bad?  What if… you were to lose a major donor, sponsor, collaborator, or key individual? What if a negative story on one of your programs were to appear on a major news source? What if?

Do you have a contingency plan in place to deal with the unexpected? Planning for every possible scenario is of course counterproductive; but, having an understanding of the process necessary to put an effective plan in place quickly is well within your reach.

Emergency management professionals are experts in dealing with the unexpected. I spent 12 years performing search and rescue operations throughout the Rocky Mountains, mostly in Colorado with Alpine Rescue Team, but also nationally and regionally, with the Mountain Rescue Association and the Colorado Search and Rescue Board.  I would shout from any mountaintop that those years contained some of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my life.

Nothing can compare to seeing the joy on a lost person's face when they have been found, witnessing a mother's relief when her child has been returned, or the personal gratification of being physically spent and emotionally drained when a mission has been successfully completed.  I'm immensely thankful for this experience; it's where I gained an appreciation for nonprofit work; the collaboration, commitment to a cause, and sense of purpose being the ultimate motivators.

The lessons I learned over those years could fill a Chinook helicopter (yep, they are big), but one analogy recently came to mind while consulting with a nonprofit working through an unexpected executive transition. Crisis management is not something most nonprofits prepare or plan for, the crisis just happens, often out of the blue, and they're usually one of those sink or swim situations. They are similar to the calls I used to get in the middle of the night, those where Aunt Edna was expected home for dinner from her favorite hike and it's now 10 PM and storming. 

We had a process for planning on the fly and the simple steps I learned from emergency management training fit perfectly for any organization experiencing an unexpected situation.

  1. Is the scene (of the accident) safe? Do you understand what the situation really looks like? Are there any hidden traps? Before you leap, this is the perfect time to take a close look around in order to thoroughly assess the situation, understand it, and then determine a reasonable response.
  2. Triage the patients/problems. There is often a hierarchy to your situation and its many inherent problems. Think beyond the obvious to understand where the bleeding is worst and set your priorities accordingly.
  3. Develop an evacuation plan. You're looking to evacuate yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Public relations efforts are usually the first place to start; you need to get ahead of the developing story, so it doesn't get worse, or better yet, so it is perceived as positive.  Next steps are often found in a broader assessment of your organization to learn why the situation got out of hand. Stepping back before stepping forward is often a good strategy.
  4. Implement your plan. Whatever the plan, set a timetable, budget, and measurement system to ensure success.  But most importantly, don't be afraid to adapt as the situation evolves. These situations are often fluid.  New twists can appear around any turn in the trail, behind any rock, or tree; so make sure you don't step off a cliff. 
  5. Mop up the scene. This is often overlooked. Part of your clean up beyond putting away the gear is an overall assessment of the operation.  In the military it's called an after-action review. It looks at what went right, what went wrong, and what can be learned from the gap.

Noted scholar and teacher, W. Edwards Deming once said: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you do not know what you are doing.”  Always think of your actions as a process, even when you are in crisis mode.

2 thoughts on “5 Steps to Crisis Management Nonprofits can learn from Emergency Managers”

  1. Thank you, sir.  That was a healthy dose of clear thinking that helps one to escape from the "fly by the seat of your pants" mentality.  I suppose there are a lot of those in not-for-profits (of whom I'm chiefest of sinners) that tend to carry a polyanna attitude because of the nature of what we do.  Well done, good and faithful servant–thank you for your constructive advice.

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