Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 16: facing and dealing with crisis and the unpredictable

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on January 1, 2013

This is my sixteenth installment in a series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-281 for Parts 1-15.)

I began a discussion of change, and of planning for and responding to it as a nonprofit leader in Part 15: facing and dealing with change and its imperatives. There, my focus was on change per se and its steady evolving pressures. I turn here to consider the more dramatic, sudden and unpredictable change that arrives as crisis.

And I begin by citing as a case study example, a locally focused nonprofit that I have some experience with. They actively reach out to the homeless to help provide food and clothing, and to help find shelter and a variety of other forms of support. In this, they work with other organizations and agencies to help bring them and members of their community in need, together. And they have weathered change as levels of funding have gone up and down and as economic and other pressures have shifted the size of the population they serve too. In severe winter weather they have traditionally been stretched to the limit but have somehow managed to take care of those in significant need. Then the building next door – an auto repair shop had a fire and burned down, and between the smoke damage from this fire itself and water damage from the Fire Department’s response, their facilities sustained massive damage too. Fire Department efforts saved their building from burning down too, but furniture and food, kitchen equipment and office equipment, carpeting and most everything else in their space was lost – and on top of that, literally, was damage to the sheetrock in all of their walls.

Fortunately this happened in warm weather and when they were not trying to meet the needs of large numbers of people who could not stay outdoors because of the weather but who otherwise had no place to go. Unfortunately, this had an immediate impact of stopping their major programs and especially their ongoing efforts to provide meals.

I do not know if the auto facility had passed its fire safety inspections or it if was carrying citations of code violations, but either way this came as a sudden and unexpected crisis to this nonprofit. And crisis leadership for it meant quickly organizing an effort to get going again.

• This meant reaching out to their supportive community for help, and with money but also with supplies and equipment, and a place they could at least temporarily use for preparing sandwiches and other foods that do not require stoves or ovens or other major kitchen appliances.
• This meant securing the materials needed to actually make those sandwiches and for assembling food packages they would be added to.
• This meant managing an assessment of damage and of what was left, and of organizing early, mid-term and longer term responses that would cover the full range from temporary fixes through long term rebuilding. Their building itself was still structurally sound even if there was a great deal of non-structural damage so rebuilding on the same site was quite feasible.

I could simply continue this narrative from there, but I will stop at this point to note that I actually began it way after its true beginning, when I started with the fire itself. Crisis leadership has to be grounded in preparation, even if that is general preparation that can flexibly respond to a wide range of unexpected contingencies.

I come to this from an Information Technology perspective so I will focus here, as a case study example, on a crucial area where businesses have to be prepared in advance and where leadership really has to come from the top: continuity of records keeping and of crucial business intelligence and documentation. Note that in my above example, everything in the building used by this single site nonprofit was lost. But thanks to cloud computing and distantly physically located online server access, their records did not have to be, except for paper invoices and other documents recently received which in many cases could be resent to them as replacement duplicate copies.

• As a matter of general principle, preparation of this type begins with identification of possible single points of failure, where if a system component goes down there is no backup or ready work-around to fill the gap of its absence.
• And as a general process, this cannot simply be relegated to a Risk Management office. Cost considerations and a need for comprehensive integration into overall operations and planning require that this be overseen by senior management, starting from the top.

Even with the best planning and the most flexible and adaptive operational execution, crises and disasters and immediate dislocations can, and with time will happen. Leadership in this calls for response with crisis management skills, and with crisis limiting systems, already in place.

I am going to finish this posting by going back very explicitly to the nonprofit setting, and to the case study example touched upon above. A nonprofit leader should prepare for and lead through crises with the full range of constituencies dependent upon their leadership in mind. That at the very least includes:

• The communities served by their organization through its pursuit of meeting the goals of mission and vision,
• Its employees and their needs, and
• Its supporters and backers.

In all of this, leadership means maintaining contact and a sense of ongoing continuity in the face of uncertainty and sudden change. Fiscal and other organizational goals set and processes followed need to be prioritized with that in mind, and the goal of returning to stability and normality as smoothly and quickly and cost-effectively as possible – with all of the trade-offs that seeking to simultaneously meet all three of those sometimes conflicting objectives implies.

I am going to conclude this series at least for now with one final installment in which I will discuss issues I have seen arise with the merger of two nonprofits under a single overall leadership. And that brings into clear focus a range of issues as to what nonprofits are and how they run, and both organizationally and interpersonally. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. You can also find this and related postings at Nonprofits and Social Networking.

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