The Crisis-Responsive Fundraiser

Within hours of Typhoon Haiyan making landfall in the Philippines, e-mails were arriving from international relief and development nonprofits that work in that region. Their message was short but clear: We are responding; please help.

Having worked in the international research and development space for years, I know that these nonprofits have a plan in place for a disaster. They don’t know when the next one will be or even what form it will take — but they know a crisis is inevitable. So they craft a plan, revise it after each experience of having to implement it and, in quiet times, review it again to be sure they are ready to respond.

And this is not simply the program staffers who are on-the-ground, distributing assistance and supplies from the stockpiles they maintain in disaster-prone regions. It’s the fundraising team, as well.

While we all respond to tragedies like Typhoon Haiyan in our own way, as fundraisers we need to regard it as a wake-up call — even if our work never involves responses to natural disasters. This is because some form of a crisis is inevitable, and how we respond determines if our nonprofit comes through mostly unscathed or if the fallout affects our ability to raise funds for years to come.

For example, what will you do if one of these situations occur?

  • The death or serious injury of a staff person, volunteer or participant
  • A lawsuit brought by an employee, volunteer or participant
  • Destruction of a facility by fire, tornado or other natural cause
  • A community situation that affects your ability to carry out your work
  • A natural disaster that affects your service area
  • Negative press coverage, whether justified or unjustified

This is not a complete list; you can probably add some other potential crises based on your location, mission or past experience.

What this is, however, is a reminder that no nonprofit is immune from a disaster that can hinder its ability to do its work, either short term or long term. And that means it can thwart your ability to raise money to carry out your programs.

Fundraisers at every nonprofit, large or small, need to have a crisis plan appropriate to their organizations — and should review and update it at least annually.

Your goal in preplanning is to be sure that if a crisis occurs, you are managing it — not being managed by it. So, to get you thinking about your own plan, here are key questions that must be answered:

  1. What potential crises could our nonprofit face? Where are we most vulnerable?
  2. Who is authorized to speak to the media? How will we communicate that to our staff and volunteers? How will we make sure this policy isn’t violated?
  3. What do we need to have on-hand so we can quickly get word to our donors? (It’s much better for donors to hear bad news from you rather than the media.) Are there graphics that should be pre-designed such as an emergency template for e-mail? Do we need “crisis” letterhead and envelopes on-hand?
  4. Are there any significant constituents we need to call immediately so we are sure they get a heads-up from us?
  5. Who is authorized to activate the crisis plan?
  6. Who is responsible for implementing it?
  7. Will our ongoing work be set aside for a bit, or can we keep that on track while adding in the crisis work?
  8. Who will implement the plan if the crisis arises on a weekend or a holiday, or if the key player is on vacation?
  9. For crises that we will want to raise money for, what systems are needed? (For example, who can quickly change your homepage and add a giving designation to your website?)
  10. What is approved language we can use immediately so we don’t have to spend precious hours trying to get approval?
  11. Do we have media contacts that we can call on quickly to give a balanced report in the media (if needed)?

Remember to review your plan at least annually (more often if you have high staff turnover) and to debrief shortly after a crisis response so you can revise it as needed based on what worked and didn’t work as well as hoped.

The bottom line: Be prepared. When a crisis is flaring up, it can be hard to think rationally and implement systems that have to be fast-tracked. This old dog has been part of the fundraising response to a number of crises (and a few “really, really bad press days”), and I know how much better your nonprofit will fare — and you will cope — if you have a plan that you can immediately implement. When time is of the essence, your preplanning will seem like the best investment of your energies you’ve made all year.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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