In recent months, I’ve supported and advised two non-profit organisations facing major crises, and it got me thinking about some of the common themes and priorities in charity crises.
Charities are not well designed for crisis management. In such situations, the Trustee Board may need to step forward, but group-decisions are often slower, more cautious and less optimistic than an individual taking the lead. The confusion between the Chair and CEO roles during a crisis can also be an factor that causes more problems than it solves.
However, all is not lost. A sensible, targeted and clear strategy for navigating the crisis that is established at the earliest possible opportunity will give the best chance of success.
There are five key priorities I have identified in every crisis management situation I’ve encountered that Trustees and the person directly managing the crisis should consider.
1: Appoint a single point of authority.
A crisis situation is rarely helped forward by group decision-making. If you want to effectively navigate a crisis, you need to identify a single point of authority to take the lead. If you have a CEO, ensure that they have the authority – and the Board’s backing – to lead the organisation through the crisis. Or, if you either don’t have a CEO, or the loss or situation of the CEO is part of the problem, appoint a Crisis Manager or interim CEO to take you through. I would usually not recommend that this role is taken by a Board member, unless the charity is entirely Board-run.
Successful navigation through change requires swift, decisive action to be taken. It can’t always wait on board meetings. Make sure you have delegated specific authority, so the person knows exactly where their authority begins and ends, and that you have made it absolutely clear what decisions do need to be referred to the board when necessary.
2: Get professional help.
It can feel like a crisis situation – which is often about money – is the worst time to be thinking about bringing in consultants. However, having someone external and experienced can help you to understand your options better as well as provide recommendations that aren’t coloured by relationships or history.
Spending money in a crisis situation may save you a lot later on – and potentially the very existence of your charity.
3: Prioritise the charity.
Trustees have other jobs and lives, and cannot always drop everything to be there for their charity. However, in a crisis, Trustees must be engaged. If you can’t attend meetings, phone in. Talk to your employers about the situation and see if you can get some extra time off. Keep in touch with what is going on and make sure you’re contributing to positive solutions. If someone says the word ‘crisis’, take it seriously. You may be able to walk away, but your beneficiaries will suffer and your staff may lose their livelihoods if the situation isn’t managed well. Some Trustees flee at the first sign of crisis, focussing on their own reputations rather than the needs of the charity and its beneficiaries. Frankly, if you react to crises in this way, you have no business being a Trustee.
4: Keep an eye on staff wellbeing.
Charity staff are noted for being passionate and dedicated, but the same emotional strength and commitment that keeps them going can also be turned on its head in a crisis. Higher level staff may feel that the organisation’s survival depends on them, so they may be overworked, overly stressed and heading for burnout. Others often feel anxious, frustrated and even resentful, especially if they don’t fully understand what is going on. This can lead to negative workplace environments and conflict, and can have an impact on the charity’s external reputation.
As much as you can, keep staff informed about what is going on, even if their jobs are at risk. Giving people the chance to help save their own positions is far more empowering than keeping it secret until it is too late. Be supportive, as honest as you can be, and do your best to ensure that the crisis is seen as something that everyone has a part to play in managing.
Make sure your staff work reasonable hours and are not shouldering too much responsibility. At the same time, remember that it is your beneficiaries that you represent, and not your staff, so you may need to make decisions about redundancies, even where you greatly value your people. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but do whatever you can to support them finding a new role if that is the end result.
5: Be prepared to make tough decisions.
Some crisis decisions are particularly hard to make. In an interim crisis management role a few years ago, I discovered the charity was heading for bankruptcy within weeks. I therefore convinced the Board to cancel payments that were planned to partners in-country, knowing that this could have a detrimental impact on those organisations and their beneficiaries. It was a difficult decision, but ensured the survival of the charity through that crisis period, so they were able to support their partners for years to come. If we had made those last payments, they would probably have been the last as the charity would have closed.
Similarly, I’ve recently worked with a charity to restructure their organisation, and there will need to be a number of redundancies. Corporate knowledge, strong skills, and good people are going to have to leave but, again, the alternative would be to keep everyone on for a few more months and then have to close entirely.
These decisions seem obvious from afar but, when a crisis is afoot, it is not always easy to understand how serious it is. Being prepared to make these tough decisions, particularly with good external advice, is a vital part of getting through a crisis situation.
You’re not alone
Many charities go through crises – some come out stronger and able to expand, while others might change their approach and contract. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone and there are people available who can help you handle this situation to achieve the best possible results.
Reach out, get some help, and grapple with the challenges you face before it is too late.
Felicia Willow is a charity consultant specialising in small-to-medium charities. She is expert in crisis management and advice, charitable governance, organisational effectiveness and strategic planning. For more information, visit her website at www.willowcharityconsulting.co.uk or feel free to get in touch for a no-obligation chat – firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you need practical and affordable assistance with navigating a charity crisis, or are interested in my comprehensive Charity Health Check tool, please get in touch with me, Felicia Willow, at Willow Charity Consulting.