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How to Create a Nonprofit Crisis Communication Plan

It’s impossible to plan the details of every potential event, but creating a nonprofit crisis communication plan prepares your organization for anything.
Emergency planning on a whiteboard.

Nonprofits need to plan ahead for a crisis of any kind before it happens. It’s important to have a framework in place with which you can evaluate anything that might affect your organization’s operations, funding, and public persona. Most importantly, you need to have a strong communications strategy in place in advance of an emergency.

Our team is filled with experts on various topics revolving around marketing and public relations, but none have quite the level of crisis management experience as Marc Benzakein, Operations Manager at ServerPress. His story is one that your nonprofit might face one day:

“I was running an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and we got hacked by a guy who was trying to extort something like $40,000 from us. This was the first I had ever heard of crisis management. My feeling was we had to be completely transparent with our customers, but what message did we want to tell them? So, I hired someone who specialized in crisis management. We talked through everything so that within the first 24 hours, we had a crisis management plan in place. It did what it was supposed to do. It was great for our PR, we were hacked and we weren’t quiet about it…The hacker had gotten credit card information and everything. We ended up with a net positive result from that because we were able to put something in place quickly…”
– Marc Benzakein

While Marc’s experience wasn’t at a nonprofit, organizations who take online donations are often targeted similarly by hackers. It reminded us that a global pandemic is not the only time a nonprofit organization will need a crisis communication plan.

Here’s advice from an expert with real-world experience on how to create your own crisis communication plan.

What is a Communications Plan and Why Do You Need One?

Any nonprofit organization providing services for people should always have a predefined continuity of operations plan. Meaning, you need to know exactly what you will do if everything you depend on is shut down tomorrow. Your nonprofit’s crisis communication plan is included within this completed framework. Make sure you establish a larger continuity of operations plan for your nonprofit with your team before diving into how you will communicate that plan.

“They are two parts of the same coin. You need the crisis management plan, which is what are the processes you’re going to put in place when a crisis hits. And, part of that process is, “how are you going to communicate this?”
– Benzakein

It’s important to note that there are two kinds of crises your nonprofit might face.

  • An internal emergency at your organization that affects your operations or fundraising. For example, your website getting hacked or your brick-and-mortar office closing.
  • External circumstances that affect your organization’s operations or fundraising. For example, a worldwide pandemic.

Especially the case of an internal emergency or any situation where your organization might be seen as at fault, you need to get “ahead of the story.”

“If you don’t have a good communications plan, someone else is going to make up the story for you. It’s best if you tell your own story rather than let people speculate.

When you have an outline of how to handle situations, you at least have a first step. It’s a little bit calming as opposed to freaking out and spending the first 24 hours after a crisis trying to figure out just what to do.”
– Benzakein

Your Nonprofit’s Communication Plan is Part of Your Continuity of Operations Plan

You need two main pieces in your nonprofit crisis communication plan. The first is a set of guidelines on how to communicate so you lead with confidence. Anytime something happens that affects your nonprofit’s operations, you need to inform your stakeholders, staff and board, volunteers, donors, and those who benefit from your programs immediately. The second piece are steps you’ll take next to manage, monitor, and communicate updates on the situation.

“Include that there was some forethought put into it; that you’re not reacting to a situation. You’re responding to it: ‘We have had a plan in place in case something like this should happen.’

Then, lay out exactly what you’re going to be doing. So, step one is we’ve done this and we’re already working on step 2, 3, 4, etc… That lets people know that while things have changed a little bit, it hasn’t changed much going forward. It’s all about instilling confidence that you know what you’re doing, even in the worst situation.”
– Benzakein

However, communicating with no action to support your words will end up hurting your organization. So make sure you have the infrastructure in place to follow through with what you tell everyone you’re going to do. That’s where your overall continuity of operations plan comes into play.

“If you don’t have that infrastructure in place, it will buy you a couple of days, but it won’t take long before people see that you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s an even bigger bruise to your organization than if you hadn’t said anything in the first place. Otherwise, don’t say anything.”
– Benzakein

What Should be Included in a Crisis Communications Plan?

  • Written crisis communications guidelines: How will you communicate with your stakeholders, staff, volunteers, or those who use your services? What tone and phrasing will you begin with?
  • A checklist of crisis monitoring and management steps: Know what you need to do in the event of both internal and external emergencies. How does monitoring those situations look? Who is responsible?
  • An emergency contact list: Who needs to be informed first if anything happens that affects your organization? In what order? Is there one person who can be in charge of distributing details to the rest? Do you have department heads who will be briefed, so they can share information with their teams?
  • A detailed communications strategy: What format will you share information? Where? How will it be distributed and how often? Is social media a good outlet for this or would email be better? Do you need both?
  • A process for identifying and preparing for potential crises: If your nonprofit is affected by local, regional, or international affairs, you need to monitor those situations regularly. Establish a process to stay informed of what’s going on and assign responsibilities. Decide on a few reliable news sources that you can use to check and confirm information.
  • A decision-making process for potential actions: It might not be easy to decide on a way forward in the moment a crisis is happening. Set a process in advance to make important decisions so that you don’t get caught frozen in action.
  • A post-crisis review template: Know how you will evaluate every crisis, both internal and external. What could you have done differently that would have affected the outcome? Document this and prioritize taking actions to prevent a repeat.

Even if you don’t know what crises might affect your organization tomorrow, next week, or years from now, know how you’ll handle it. Having a plan keeps your nonprofit running in times of chaos. Plans help everyone on your team feel more confident and calm, which leads to more level-headed decisions over fearful or panicked ones.

Communicating About a Crisis in Action

A framework for crisis communication is easier said than done most of the time. You never know what will happen. And, if something happens that no one could have planned for, how do you prepare for that?

How do you instill confidence when you have no idea what the situation will be the next day? We asked Marc about the Coronavirus Pandemic as an example.

“This [Coronavirus Pandemic] is definitely a crisis that no one saw coming. And, when you say an external crisis, like this COVID-19 Pandemic, well there really haven’t been any crises like that… I think that it’s important to communicate to everybody almost immediately. But, the question is, ‘what kind of organization are you?’

If you’re brick-and-mortar, it’s really important that you give your organization confidence right away. If you don’t know the answers, then being transparent is equally important. ‘We’re doing everything we can, but we don’t have all the answers yet,” is an okay answer because nobody knows what all the answers are. While that doesn’t instill confidence, it at least ensures people that you’re on it.

For instance with COVID-19, if you look at what we know today versus two weeks ago and how things have changed literally every single day, the first thing we do in the morning is say, ‘What’s the damage report? What can’t we do today that we could do yesterday?’ Because every single day things are changing. It’s really hard to plan for that.

When you’re dealing with brick and mortar, or people going into an office every day, they need a plan for ‘What happens if our office gets shut down tomorrow?’ If they don’t have a crisis plan for that, the best they can do is react in any situation.”
– Benzakein

While it might be hard to plan for the unexpected, creating a framework for your communications helps you “lead with confidence, and make sure the right message gets out.” Yet, what you plan is sometimes hard to translate into action when a crisis actually occurs. Anything can change. So, keep a quick checklist around to make sure you communicate properly with anyone affected by your nonprofits’ operations as soon as possible.

Your Nonprofit Crisis Communications Checklist

In the event of an internal or external crisis, use this quick checklist to keep track of your communication of the situation.

  • Create a summary document of who, what, where, when, why, and key resources to monitor the situation.
  • Alert your team and send them the initial details using your emergency phone or email list.
  • Confirm the facts & verify technical or scientific information with a neutral third party.
  • Prepare a quick-view fact sheet with short bullet points.
  • Prepare a concise summary statement on your organization’s position on or involvement with the event and how it affects you.
  • Notify your stakeholders (people key to the organization, like board members) of what is going on and what your plan is.
  • Tell volunteers and clients about changes in services or operations.
  • Update your website to reflect your communications on the crisis.
  • Post your initial response and updates publicly on social media channels and your website.
  • Assign one person to respond to the media or anyone who is asking questions of your organization. Use the template in your crisis communication plan as a guide for responses. This maintains consistency in the stance/view your organization has, contains details on how you are moving forward, and has been reviewed and agreed upon by your team.
  • Keep a log of callers, questions, and any other communications related to the crisis.
  • Update everyone as the situation develops over time, but don’t rush to do so. Verify all developments fully before making public statements or decisions.
  • Evaluate and tweak the way you’re communicating through the crisis depending on the feedback you get.

Plan For the Worst and Hope for the Best

Having a “worst-case scenario” plan for your nonprofit prevents damage to your operations, funding, employment, and public image. During a crisis, people can be fearful or angry and quick to judge. Communicating effectively, clearly, and proactively can help set everyone’s minds at ease.

Most importantly, always make sure your organization is truthful and crafts your messaging carefully.

“BE HONEST. You want to make sure you’re being 100% transparent while also instilling confidence with what you’re saying…. You can write your story, or someone else is going to do it for you. Which do you think is going to turn out better?”
– Benzakein

If you want a template to help start your own nonprofit’s crisis communication plan, try this toolkit from the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

For more information on Marc’s experience with crisis management, read his article on why “It’s better to be Wise Than Smart.” Sign up for our newsletter for more nonprofit and fundraising advice.

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