Crisis Management for Nonprofits

In our headline-obsessed, gotcha culture, misconduct, cover-ups, and accusations of reputable nonprofits are dominating newsfeeds with an increasing – and alarming – frequency. Of course, the most responsible organizations have put in place safeguards, leadership structures, accountability measures, and dedicated teams to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place. But even the most well-prepared, best practice-driven, and finest mission-oriented nonprofits may find themselves in the unwelcome position of making the front page with a less-than-flattering – or worse, more-than-devastating – headline.

While you can’t plan for every possible scenario, strategic crisis response planning during your best day can bring structure and clarity on your worst. And responsible response planning requires the careful consideration of who is around the table during those moments as much as what is discussed.

Whatever the nature of the crisis, it will inevitability demand uncomfortable levels of attention, scrutiny, and involvement of leadership (assuming they are not themselves the headline) along with an elevator full of lawyers and public relations pros. Often overlooked, however, is the role of development leaders. The most astute organizations recognize that development leaders belong in every phase of crisis planning and response, including – especially – in the initial hours and days of triage. Your donors need to hear from you on your worst day. Because it is likely one of their worst, too. Waiting to speak with them is not an option.

Below are a few tips to keep in mind when developing – or implementing – crisis response, communications, and management strategies for your top donors.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Do it early, regularly, and often. In the first hours and days following a crisis, acknowledge the issue (and tackle it head on, see tip #2) to donors and share what the organization is doing to develop a response. Granting a glimpse of the work being done behind the scenes is a positive, valued first step.  

Tackle the issue head on.  Do not skirt around the issue or communicate with overly obtuse, formal, or legal language. Best to skip the hyperbole and euphemisms, too. Speak to the hearts of your donors in a way that shows your humanity, and they will respond with theirs.

Keep asking. Action is worth a thousand “official” statements. Any pause or delay in routine appeals conveys to your donor base that your mission is not worthy of their support. Assuming you believe that your organization’s mission still matters, continue with planned asks, incorporating context-appropriate messaging. Smaller appeals should continue as well.

Invite your community to the table. Your most ardent supporters will want to help. Harness this energy in ways that are most strategic for your crisis response plan. Can alumni make donations ending in their class year? Can Board members lend their names to bylines of editorial pieces?

Build avenues of collaboration. Larger organizations often have in-house public relations and crisis communications functions. Collaboration between them and development is always vital, but especially before a crisis happens. A weak relationship between vital branches of your organization pre-crisis means a non-existent one during a crisis. Grease the wheels between offices regularly so that when the stakes are at their highest, clear roles, consensus, and communication channels are already in place.

Continue to invest in fundraising. The only way to prevent incoming dollars from slowing down following a crisis is to further strengthen donor communications, engagement, and cultivation and solicitation. Cutting the budgets of fundraisers may prevent short-term cuts to programs but will only lead to more cuts across the board.

If you find yourself in the thick of a crisis, Godspeed, and remember, it does not automatically mean the end of a donor relationship. Stewarded properly, donors will emerge with you on the other side, perhaps even stronger, more loyal supporters than before. People are funny that way.


This post was written and contributed by Graham-Pelton