Crisis Management for Small Charities
When a crisis occurs events usually happen fast and there’s little time to think. So it helps to already have a crisis action plan in place. You’ll rarely anticipate the exact scenario, but your preparation will pay off. Whilst many crises arise as a result of a single, unmissable, potentially catastrophic action, it is also possible for one to arise as a result of a number of smaller less noticeable events which combine to produce the crisis.
As chair of both risk management and crisis management teams I’ve handled many crises in my time. Some are over within hours, others last months. They can easily monopolise your time and distract from normal responsibilities and work.
Already in place?
Its essential to make plans before a crisis occurs. Every charity should have a risk register with a risk action plan for mitigating the identified risks. If you’ve not already done one that’s your first priority: see the signposts below. A starting point for a risk register could include:
At a trustee meeting and/or at a leadership meeting give everyone 5 minutes to jot down on post it notes (a separate note for each risk) their perceived risks for the organisation (what keeps them awake at night).
Collate them by theme eg reputation, strategy and programme, finance, people, technology, buildings and facilities, communication.
Assess the likelihood and impact of each.
Agree some prioritised actions to reduce the likelihood of each risk occurring (prevention) or to minimise its impact if it does.
Agree a timetable to revisit the register to ensure it remains relevant; make sure the senior staff team are considering it too.
If your charity does not already have a risk register its really important to put one in place: see Signposts at the end of this resource.
It’s also healthy for a charity to assess their risk appetite: that is the level of risk the organisation is willing to take in various areas in order to meet its strategic objectives. It’s wise to ensure that all trustees have common views about acceptable levels of risk. This avoids giving conflicting advice to staff.
It is good practice to have a risk management team of two to five people (staff and trustees) who will compile the risk register and risk action plan and review it from time to time, reporting at least annually to trustees.
It is wise to have a crisis action plan and operational disaster recovery plans. This resource is primarily about preparing a crisis action plan.
Crisis action plans
Put together a generic crisis action plan with nominated people ready to deal with specific tasks.
Here are some items to include, as appropriate to your charity.
1. What could happen: possible crisis scenarios?
Identify the most likely crisis situations from the risk register, risk assessment and action plans. For many charities a crisis which has a reputational risk would be most significant as that can quickly have a knock on impact on supporters and funding. Here are some possible scenarios:
Disgrace or loss of a high profile member of the team (senior staff or trustee)
Inappropriate statement/comment by trustee, staff, ambassador
Controversial programme or policy content
Problem experienced by a beneficiary which impacts on your organisation
Misrepresentation in the media
A safeguarding issue
Financial scandal including major theft or fraud
Significant and sudden drop in funds eg so a programme is cut
Dismissal or redundancy of staff
GDPR or other legislative shortcoming
Loss of data/ IT resource
2. How might the charity become aware of the crisis?
Anticipate the likely routes: a phone call, door-stepping from media, a trustee or staff member flags that they’ve made an error. Ensure receptionists and anyone who answers phone calls is briefed how to handle such a situation.
3. What is the likely internal and external escalation and how will you deal with that?
Agree in advance who is the initial “point person” for any crisis. They will identify the appropriate crisis management team for that specific event.
If the crisis is in the public domain it can quickly escalate on social media or with news media coverage. Stakeholders may start asking questions. You may need to act fast!
4. What action should you take to address the crisis (what will you communicate and what will you do?)
5. Pray: In the context of a Christian charity brief a small, trusted team of intercessors to pray confidentially for the situation. Update them as appropriate and thank them when the matter is concluded.
6. Agree who should lead the crisis team in the specific instance. Who else should be part of the crisis management team (specific for the incident)? When and how should that team confer? Are there implications for the normal work of those involved? Do you need additional professional advice / expertise (legal/ accounting/ technological) or additional resources?
7. Who will you tell? Staff, trustees, volunteers, supporters, beneficiaries? Check you have their contact details easily but securely available off site. Consider an escalation process of contacts if all staff need to be informed.
In certain circumstance you will also need to alert the Charity Commission or even the police (if the matter is criminal).
8. Appoint a spokesperson: If the situation requires external communication who should be the spokesperson? Ensure that everyone in the organisation knows who the official spokesperson is and is clear that no one else should comment, however fierce the media pressure. Identify potential spokespeople for different scenarios in advance and provide media training if needed.
9. What will you say? Some draft press statements or bullet points for the most likely scenarios can be really helpful so you are editing not starting from scratch.
10. Have an IT and data disaster recovery plan in place and ensure that you are taking regular, restorable backups of your systems. (when was this last tested?) Identify which elements (if any) might be time critical at any point in the month/ year. (e.g. salary data close to deadlines).
11. Premises disaster recovery plan: Have arrangements in case your premises are damaged eg by flood or fire. This should include potential alternative place of work, although homeworking may be the best option.
12. Hold technical plans of your premises and facilities off site, ideally both paper and electronic.
13. Keep an up to date list of essential contacts including emergency services, insurers, electricians, maintenance contractors, phone and internet suppliers, builder.
14. Determine what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Remember to monitor progress and add tasks as required.
Signposts to other resources
AFVS https://afvs.org.uk/?s=risk Advice for the Voluntary Sector has a series of templates and policies for charities.
Parish Resources Managing Risk focusses on risk management in a church context. https://www.parishresources.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Risk-management.pdf
Charity Commission resources: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-manage-risks-in-your-charity
Author & copyright: Helen Calder 2018
Peer reviewed by Alison Grieve