Inevitably, at some point in your agency’s life cycle, a crisis will arise that will challenge your team in difficult ways and may even threaten your survival. Resilient, well-prepared teams tackle crisis events with confidence and skill, learning and adapting as they manage through the event or circumstances. Resilient agencies ‘bounce’ back stronger and better prepared for ‘what’s next.’
Many agencies, however, are ill-prepared to cope with disruptions and crisis events. This article explores strategies and techniques to build readiness to cope with the crisis you cannot avoid.
What is a Crisis?
In the book Managing Crisis, from Harvard Business Press, the authors define ‘crisis’ as follows: “A Change—sudden or evolving—that results in an urgent problem that must be addressed immediately.”
At the Nonprofit Risk Management Center (NRMC), we are drawn to this definition because it highlights two aspects of a crisis that distinguish it from a ‘problem’ or ‘concern’ facing your agency. First, a crisis is an urgent problem, rather than an expected, customary, or recurring problem. Second, a crisis is something that requires your immediate attention and focus; it cannot be put off until a later date!
Another definition of ‘crisis’ that we find helpful is from the work of Charles F. Hermann. In 1963 Hermann defined an organizational crisis as follows:
“An organizational crisis (1) threatens high-priority values of the organization, (2) presents a restricted amount of time in which a response can be made, and (3) is unexpected or unanticipated by the organization.” (Source: “Some Consequences of Crisis which Limit the Viability of Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly 8, 1963).
Hermann’s definition points to three interesting elements that categorize crises facing agencies: a threat to principal values or priorities, a short response time, and surprise. Another aspect of Hermann’s work on crisis management was his observation that crisis events present both opportunities and threats to an agency’s top goals. We couldn’t agree more!
No set of plans can inoculate an agency from crisis events. However, by reflecting on readiness and capability, an agency can improve its skill in coping with the crisis it was unable to avoid. In the paragraphs that follow, we explore five steps to build and infuse crisis management capabilities into the fabric of your agency.
5 Steps to Establish Effective Crisis Management Capabilities
Step 1. Form a Crisis Team
Crisis-related roles are sometimes bifurcated into two sets of responsibilities: crisis planning responsibilities and crisis response capabilities. In smaller agencies, the same team is likely to lead crisis preparations and manage the agency’s response when a crisis occurs. Larger agencies may have the opportunity to tap the expertise, insights, and assistance of a more extensive staff and elect to create two teams. One team would focus on developing a crisis management plan, and the second will take the helm when a crisis occurs.
As you consider forming a Crisis Team, we encourage you to consider:
- In a crisis, whose skills and style will be vital to keeping us focused and effective?
- Do the skills needed to create a thoughtful crisis management plan and strategy differ from those we will require during an actual crisis?
- Should the team’s make-up that leads the agency during a crisis differ based on the nature of the crisis?
- What role should the board play during a crisis or crisis planning exercise?
As you reflect on the skills, roles, or authority that may be needed, also consider:
- Do we need someone with the specific authority to make decisions that require the expenditure of funds, or will everyone on the likely crisis team have that authority?
- If we expect a crisis to require media interviews or public statements, do we need to include our official spokesperson and one or more back-ups?
- What skills, expertise, or resources do we have to capably cope with a crisis, and what are the current gaps?
- What other skills (such as technical skills, social work skills, etc.) will be essential for any team facing a crisis?
Consider creating a checklist of the skills or talents you require on your crisis planning and/or crisis response team. For example:
Crisis Planning Team
- Strong writer: someone to author the crisis management plan
- Finance team member: someone to help estimate the financial implications of crisis management options
- Systems-thinker or process guru: someone who is skilled at identifying how certain actions potentially have far-ranging consequences
- Liaison: a team member who has the pulse on our relationships with key stakeholder groups, such as community networks, donors, etc.
Crisis Response Team
- Commander: a strong, calm leader
- Document preserver: a team member who will make sure we keep track of everything that is happening and our actions
- Insurance claims coordinator
- External spokesperson
- Financial expert
- Legal guru
- Liaison(s) to staff and internal stakeholders
- Medical or safety lead (the team member who will liaise with those providing assistance in the event of a crisis due to a medical or safety issue)
Step 2. Assess Readiness
Assessing existing crisis management capabilities and organizational readiness is a critical step in crisis management planning. Evaluating readiness is also a possible agenda item/assignment for your newly formed—or reformed—Crisis Team. Consider using the following prompts to reflect on your agency’s readiness:
- What crisis management planning or related work has been done in the past?
- Have our planning efforts helped us—or hindered us—when we faced crisis events in the past? How?
- Do we have an existing crisis management plan or protocols in place?
- If so, is the current plan relevant, actionable, up-to-date, and well-understood by the current staff team?
- If we don’t have a specific crisis management plan, do we have other relevant plans, policies, or procedures to cope with disruptions?
- Have we collaborated with external partners (e.g., local police, fire and rescue, emergency assistance agencies, etc.) to prepare for a crisis?
- To what degree have we equipped our board to fulfill its responsibilities during a crisis?
- Have we planned for the loss or adaptation of our facilities, space, equipment, systems, data, and any other resources that we rely on to conduct our day-to-day work?
- Have we determined approaches and timetables for scaling back, shutting down, and restarting specific programs, services, operational functions, systems, etc., that might be disrupted or temporarily discontinued?
Don’t worry if these prompts and the discussions that ensue identify many gaps in your agency’s readiness. Remember that ascertaining gaps and weaknesses during the planning process is preferable to discovering them amid a crisis!
Step 3. Learn from the past
For many teams, cleaning up after a crisis event cannot end fast enough. Due to the stress of the situation and worry about setting aside customary duties, many agency leaders will be eager to close the books on the ‘event’ or circumstances and put the crisis behind them. But before you close the door on any crisis, it’s important to take a step back and extract valuable lessons from what just occurred. The process of reflecting on an incident is sometimes referred to as an After-Action Review. The word “action” is key in the term; it reminds us that the principal focus of the process is on how a team responded to the event. A successful After-Action Review can uncover valuable lessons that will help your team build resilience and readiness for the next crisis or disruptive event.
Some of the fundamental questions to ask during an After-Action Review might include:
- What exactly happened during the crisis?
- Did our crisis management plan—or other documents, policies, or plans—work as expected?
- What aspects of our response went well? Why?
- What aspects of our response were not as smooth as they could have been? How can we improve them for the future?
- What changes in policy and plans should be considered?
- What did our internal and external stakeholders think of our response efforts?
- Were there any secondary surprises or challenges that arose during our response or in the wake of the crisis?
- What can we do to prevent similar situations in the future?
Consider using a chart to capture critical information during your After-Action Review.
- What was the nature of the crisis: A staff member who had exclusive authority for key accounts departed without warning
- When the crisis occurred, we took the following actions: We eventually found contact information for the accounts and updated our information to include two team members at the agency
- Lessons we learned from the crisis included:
- It is never wise to vest in a single employee full responsibility for any account or critical relationship
- Contact information for all accounts and key relationships should be documented
- Based on our experience with this crisis, we will take the following steps to improve crisis planning and response:
- We are creating a business operation manual that will contain contact information for all accounts, subscriptions, and critical relationships.
- We have adopted a new policy that ensures a minimum of two contact persons for each vendor or essential stakeholder relationship.
Step 4. Think through possible crisis scenarios
Another helpful step is to reflect on possible crisis scenarios. Keep in mind that this exercise is not intended to identify every potential crisis facing your agency, nor is it suited to identifying the most likely crisis you will face.
The exercise is helpful as a way to identify specific steps a team can take to better prepare for specific crisis events. And the action steps inspired by the activity are likely to be helpful to the agency, regardless of whether you actually experience the crisis scenarios that were unearthed and discussed.
- 10 ‘worst possible’ future events that could significantly disrupt our operations or strategic priorities: Death of a client in our care
- Potential negative consequences of the event: Negative media publicity, lawsuit alleging negligence, staff resignations
- Potential sources or causes of the crisis: Staffing challenges: lack of back-ups for all roles should a team member become ill and unable to work
- Next steps to either reduce the likelihood of the crisis or build readiness to respond:
- Brainstorming to identify how we can ensure that all programs are adequately staffed
- Designation of central office staff as emergency ‘back-ups’ for direct service team members
- Training of central office staff
Step 5: Capture a written plan
The first four steps in this process are unequivocally the “heavy-lifting” of building a Crisis Management Plan. Once you have completed the exercises it’s time to document the results in a format that can be easily retrieved and referenced when your agency experiences a crisis. The process you used to arrive at this juncture has helped build and reinforce capabilities that will aid your agency in weathering any crisis. The document you produce in the final step can serve as an anchor and a reminder when situations are stressed and emotions are running high.
Crisis management plans can be structured as a collection of lists and checklists or may have more detailed narratives. The bottom line that the format should fit your agency and be a helpful resource. Many crisis management plans capture the following:
- Activation protocols – Who has the authority to activate the crisis management plan, and how will it be enacted (including how to communicate to staff and volunteers that the plan has been activated)?
- Crisis management org chart or chain of command – This section will likely focus on the agency’s Crisis Response Team or Crisis Team, which may be different from your typical agency org chart. It’s important that crisis leaders and their contact information are clearly identified.
- Crisis Operations Center – Information about where your agency will center crisis operations should include a main facility and backup plans if your operations center has to be moved because of the emergency. This section should also include a checklist of essential supplies that should be stocked for all emergencies, or the location of pre-assembled “go-bags.”
- Internal and external contact lists – Contact lists can be appended to the actual crisis management plan, or the author may consider adding links to digital contact lists. It’s essential to have quick access to up-to-date contact information for staff and volunteers, as well as points of contact for key external stakeholders. This list should also include local emergency support contacts, local government and agency support information, media and news outlets, and any external partners providing essential services to the agency. Some agencies include this information in their business/agency continuity plan.
- Capture staff certifications and special emergency response capabilities – Know who on your team holds certifications and specific skills that will be helpful during a crisis. Cataloging these in a simple spreadsheet or document will ease the burden locating the right parties to help on cross-functional crisis teams.
Crisis situations, by nature, are sometimes unavoidable, but they always require urgent attention. The resilience your agency will have developed by planning and writing a Crisis Management Plan will serve your mission in more ways than just providing a road map for weathering the storm. Plans you make to support your agency in a crisis will help team members take appropriate, timely action during an emergency. Crisis plans are part of a suite of resilience capabilities that serve as a foundation for creating a complete agency continuity strategy.
By Melanie Lockwood Herman and Whitney Thomey