Two words: Stuff happens.

There are a million things that could go wrong in your org—a board or team member gets arrested; your org gets accused of fraud; a spokesperson or celebrity associated with your cause gets bad press; someone starts spreading rumors online and it picks up traction, throwing your nonprofit into a questionable light. It’s human nature to avoid thinking about these types of things, but if you don’t prepare in advance for a potential crisis, you could make a bad situation even worse.

The answer: a crisis communication plan.


What is a crisis communication plan?

Basically, it’s a series of steps that your nonprofit lays out, explaining how your org will manage the communications surrounding a crisis, emergency or other unexpected event.
It outlines what type of messaging you’ll post or broadcast, who the spokesperson will be, which outlets you’ll focus on, how you’ll mitigate the damage and what you’ll do to ensure this thing won’t happen again, if applicable. Clearly some things are out of your control (the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance). But if the situation is something that could have been avoided and your org is taking some heat for it, your crisis communication plan will detail who will take accountability and what the path will be going forward.

Whether your organization is facing an internal crisis or an external challenge, one of the most important things you can do is have an emergency communication plan that lays out the steps for speaking to the public and with your team. If you’re wondering, “But why? We’ll just deal with unlikely events if and when they happen,” I’ll give you four compelling reasons.


1. You’ll be more prepared.

This is a no-brainer, but in a crisis, preparation is key. You’re much more likely to be level-headed and have clarity of thought before you’re in crisis mode. Once a crisis hits, our brains go into “flight or fight” mode and rather than thoughtfully responding to that event, we tend to quickly react—and it’s a well thought-out response that we need in the face of a crisis, not a frantic or emotional reaction.

Before a crisis strikes, think through who will speak for your org, what method of communication you’ll use (social media, press release, website content, etc.) and how you’ll handle any backlash or negative PR. Knowing all this in advance will make you feel much more prepared to respond, even if you have to think on your feet when a crisis hits.


2. You’ll keep people as safe as possible.

In the case of a natural disaster, like a hurricane, fire or earthquake, you’ll want to know how you’re going to communicate with your team as well as the public to keep as many people safe as possible. You also have to consider other types of crises as well: What if an active shooter enters your building? What if someone on your staff becomes threatening or violent? What if there’s word of another virus spreading in your city and you need to inform your team and volunteers as to how you’re going to keep them safe?

Be sure that your crisis communication plan outlines both how you’ll communicate to the public and how you’ll communicate to the people inside your org, like your staff, volunteers, board members and constituents.


3. You’ll be able to minimize or mitigate damage to your org’s reputation.

Let’s be clear up front: Being defensive in the face of a public relations crisis that threatens to harm your nonprofit’s reputation or credibility will rarely, if ever, work. So, put the shields and/or boxing gloves away; you typically cannot fight your way out of a potentially damaging situation.

What will mitigate damage is taking responsibility for any actions—or lack of action—that contributed to the crisis situation, acknowledging your role, accepting the consequences, humbly admitting any kind of fault and vowing to do better.

This approach will make your org much more trustworthy, especially if whatever happened has shaken your donors’ or stakeholders’ trust in you. In your crisis communication plan, you can outline not only how you’ll communicate about the situation, but also what tone you’ll have in your messaging. Pro tip: A humble tone is usually the winner.


4. You’ll endear people to your organization—if you handle it right.

When you’re quick to admit any wrongdoing and commit to do better in the future, people are typically quick to forgive—especially those who are committed to your cause. In fact, there have been instances where orgs have been so good at handling negative PR that they’ve actually won people over who were not yet supporters just by the way they handled their crisis communication.

Now let’s talk about a crisis that’s not your fault—a natural disaster, a pandemic, an event that caused damage or loss of lives. Your response to such a crisis matters significantly! Even if it doesn’t directly touch you.

Nonprofits exist to create impact. To do more good. To make a positive difference in the world. If you can respond to a crisis event with compassion and communicate your plan of action for how you’re going to aid the people involved, you’ve not only made a difference, but you’ve likely endeared a slew of onlookers, watching to see how your org is coming to the rescue.

As important as a crisis communication plan is, we know that it can be a heavy lift—especially if you’re a smaller organization with just a handful of team members. We’ve worked with nonprofits for over three decades in just about every capacity, and our nonprofit experts and creative team can partner with you to develop your own crisis communication plan, so that you’re prepared when the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.


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