Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Crisis Management for the Nonprofit Organization

Overwhelming organizational crises are becoming the norm for many nonprofit organizations – something I realized just recently while facilitating a large group of nonprofit CEO’s. Each reported going through some sort of crisis and each felt immobilized by it. Some of their crises were specific to the mission – like dealing with clients, members, donors, or other external forces. Others were internal management issues related to employees, boards or volunteers. Regardless of the cause, many expressed frustration with their inability to stay secure in themselves and centered enough to effectively lead during crisis. That frustration seemed to grow exponentially if these crises never seemed to end. Many studies on nonprofit CEO burnout report that managing ongoing crisis is one of the top factors influencing these leaders to leave their jobs.

While one could argue that negotiating a crisis is a complex task with no easy solutions, I would like to share steps I learned to better navigate difficult times. Today, in most situations, I no longer allow crisis to manage me. While I still have crises, and some times do better than others in dealing with them, I can honestly say that my work life is no longer controlled by crisis.

When I moved to Alaska 16 years ago, I inherited an organization (guess which one?) where staff members were so frustrated they contemplated joining a union to have more control over their work life. The majority of the board had become disengaged through a lack of staff support and ongoing crises – in fact, it had not reached a quorum for almost six months. Affiliated organizations felt powerless to address their needs and suffered from our lack of support. Donors demanded better accountability and efficiency following the Aramony scandal at the United Way of America. And then there were layoffs in the largest donor corporations whose employees provided 50-percent of our operating budget. These were brutal facts and provided us with an abundance of crises.

From necessity, I remembered something one of my mentors had suggested years earlier and it turned out to be a simple, yet effective solution. While the steps are easy, implementation is hard because it demands the discipline to tackle one problem at a time, instead of trying to solve everything at once. And it requires the hard decision of which problems receive priority and get addressed first and, maybe just as important, which problems to ignore.

The strategy – address each crisis as quickly as possible and then move on.
It seems that when organizations focus too much energy on responding too much to each crisis, it actually attracts more crises. For example, when a child skins her knee, good parents kiss it and make it better, wipe away the tears, and help her go back to having fun. The same technique works well with organizations in crisis when they follow three easy steps.

  1. Identify, articulate and accept the problem (the knee is hurt and my daughter is crying).
  2. Prioritize and then address the problem as quickly as possible and don’t “drop an atomic bomb on an anthill” (put a bandage on it, kiss it and wipe away the tears).
  3. Move to the next priority.

We need to get through the problems as fast as possible so we can spend energy not on stopping things from happening but on what we want to make happen – like the organization’s vision (having fun).While this may seem overly simplistic, once we become accustomed to not allowing crisis to control us or our organization, fewer crises occurs. They will never go away, but many will diminish.

The tool for your toolbox – resolve crisis ASAP. The more you spend time and energy fixing what is broken, the more you will find other things to fix. Believe it or not, that is the fact.