Developing a crisis management plan for your nonprofit organization

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What would your team do if you arrived to work tomorrow to news that your board chair or executive director (assuming it's not you) had committed suicide?

Scenario two: You receive a call from the Globe and Mail that they are about to publish a story about alleged fraud by a board member regarding expenses he incurred on your association business?

Scenario three: You arrive to the office and it has been vandalized - computers were stolen, file cabinets were pried open, and locks broken.

Many not-for-profit organizations have faced crises, including the examples above. High-performing organizations are ready to respond, using their "Crisis Management Plan" (CMP).

In contrast to a risk management plan, which involves assessing potential threats and finding the best ways to avoid those threats, a crisis management plan involves dealing with threats after they have occurred.

This article offers ideas on how to develop your organization’s crisis management plan.

1. Assemble the right crisis management plan development team

You are about to imagine what crises could occur to your organization and the people engaged in the work of your not-for-profit. To ensure you cover all possibilities, bring in people with representative experience of that work. That includes volunteers, staff, and providers (e.g. insurance, computers, events).

All projects do best when they have a "champion;" pick one with authority and influence. It is always a good idea to include a board member. Be certain to include the frontline staff (reception, office manager, spokesperson, etc.) as they will be at the front line of your crisis and can provide valuable input.

2. Arrange to have your draft crisis management plan reviewed

Once you have a draft crisis management plan, ask a number of key stakeholders to review it and provide feedback. This could include your board, committee members, staff, and friends who run similar associations.

3. Implement your crisis management plan

3.1 Identify your response team. Clarify by position, not by person’s name, who is authorized to take what action in the event of each type of crisis. A chart is very helpful for quick reference. Examples of tasks include:

  • Who is the organization’s spokesperson(s) on this matter (to respond to members, media, etc.)?
  • What message(s) should staff and volunteer leaders deliver if asked about the situation? (e.g. X is our official spokesperson and we invite you to contact her at...or I will relay your inquiry to...)
  • What should be published on your website, by whom, and under whose authority?
  • Who will determine what support those directly impacted deserve (e.g. grief counselling, trauma counselling, etc.)

Then list the contact information (all phone numbers and email addresses for each of the persons currently occupying the positions listed.

3.2 Publish your response procedures. Again, using chart form to keep it simple works here. List each potential crisis in your first column and then in the next column list the response procedure(s). You may also want to include a contingency procedure. Include the information about your response team (see 3.1. above) in this document.

Here is an example:

Crisis Response Procedure Contingency Procedure Contact Persons
Your keynote speaker trips on the escalator on her way to delivering the opening address to your conference. Your response team follows the instructions in the CMP; call 911, ask for the hotel’s assistance, notify your insurance agent, the speaker’s office, etc. Call your back-up speaker on his/her cell and tell them “you’re on;” notify the A/V team. Have last minute contact information for your back-up speaker(s) readily available; ensure they have their presentation on a memory stick.

3.3 Elaborate on emergency procedures. Determine which crises constitute an emergency and articulate the applicable procedures in very clear and simple language. Know that your team will likely be in an emotional state, so step-by-step instructions work best. Take no step for granted. Emergencies include health crisis (heart attack, seizure, miscarriage, assaults, etc.) so emergency telephone numbers must be available wherever an incident might occur (which is anywhere). Post them on bulletin boards, in internal staff/volunteer online directories for quick reference, etc. Of course, you will also publish emergency procedures and contact numbers in your crisis management plan document.

3.4 Publish your communication guidelines. In your CMP, devote a section with instructions on how to deal with the media and with the families of those impacted. It is best to have only one spokesperson to deal with media, to ensure consistency in delivering key messages. Publish when to communicate to members, staff and other stakeholders, and what your reception person should say to visitors/callers. If your crisis involves media in a significant way, develop a separate media crisis response strategy and plan.

3.5 Set up your evaluation process. Ensure your response team sets up an evaluation process at the front end of publishing a CMP that can guide your organization on how to evaluate your crisis response experience after an incident and make revisions to your CMP.

3.6 Make resource materials available. In your CMP, include information about additional resource material available (especially Internet-based links). This could include first aid training, fire drill procedures for your locations, how to plan when hosting events off-premise, a protocol in the event of a workplace violence incidence, and any other information as appropriate.

4. Create a separate disaster management plan

If your organization is located in an area prone to natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, flu epidemics, etc., then set up a disaster management plan. Work with local officials and assistance agencies to plan for every possible situation that could put your organization, and/or its people, at risk using the above guidelines.

There may be many other preparations your circumstances require; this article is intended to get you started. As with all plans, an annual review and update should be scheduled, and in your plan it is important to document who needs to receive the new crisis management plan.

Paulette is President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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