Marketing Strategy + Planning PR + News Management

Why your nonprofit needs a crisis communications plan

A crisis communications plan is critical to protect a nonprofit’s people, assets and brand. In a crisis communications situation, your reputation is at stake. The steps taken in preparation for a crisis and how you handle the immediate aftermath and long-term reputation management will determine how much or how little your organization and its leadership will be trusted and respected.

Nonprofits need to be proactive. Rarely do nonprofits focus on planning for negative media attention, and in today’s technology climate, it’s more than just managing the media. Being proactive can save you money in the long run. Negative attention can cause a loss of potential or current funding or cause you to lose key constituents who are engaged in the organization.

Many nonprofits, especially those smaller in scope and scale, think it can never happen to them – until it does. Any number of situations can be cause for negative attention directed at your organization.

Here are three reasons why you need a crisis communications plan for your nonprofit:

The middle of a crisis is the worst time to prepare for the crisis.

A crisis waits for no one. Anything can happen to your nonprofit  –a hurricane that wipes out your office, a board member’s shady past coming back to bite you, an inappropriate Facebook post or even financial challenges. The worst time to try to figure out a plan to respond to these scenarios is after they happen. Many times, it’s not the crisis itself that causes a lack of trust in the nonprofit but rather how the nonprofit responds.

You need an experienced (and well-trained) crisis communications team in place before there is even the hint of an issue. First responders train and prepare long before their first mission in the field so they are more than ready when the time comes. The same principles apply.

You need to identify your crisis communications team members including their roles and responsibilities. You need an actionable checklist of who to notify first so your most protected people and assets are not blind-sided. Then you need a solid plan of when and how to respond. If a plan is created and your team spends time practicing, when the time comes, they will know what to do and can execute with confidence.

Nonprofits are people driven – and people are complicated.

While a good deal of nonprofits provide a thorough vetting of staff, very few do background checks on their board members. Tying board members to an organization means that their reputation is tied to your own. You have no idea what skeletons might be lurking in their closet so you have to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. Whether it’s a bad business dealing or something more personal, if a negative media crisis hits a board member, and his or her role with your organization is indicated – you become part of the crisis. A nonprofit needs to not only know if or how to respond but how best to protect the nonprofit’s reputation as well.

In addition, nearly everyone has a social media presence of some sort today. That means for many people their personal life might be mixing a bit with their professional life. People’s comments on articles are public. Photos can be public. The personal lives of many are on display for all. The chance of someone expressing a view that upsets donors or a constituency is bound to happen. Negative comments can also be left on social media by disgruntled staff and clients.

Getting in front of this information quickly is key. A social media policy can only do so much. A crisis communications plan is the next step in preparedness.

Getting in front of the story – leading the narrative.

With social media and new technologies, it’s not always just managing the media that’s the biggest challenge. Never underestimate the skills involved in dealing with the media during a crisis, but remember it no longer has to be a member of the media who will “break” a story.

All it takes is a well-placed and followed social media story. Today, anyone with an internet connection, recording device and mediocre following can take a nonprofit’s story (even adding their own spin) and create a national crisis for a nonprofit in a matter of hours.

Social media information moves faster and reaches more. Once online, even long after the crisis, the information remains. Nonprofits need early preparedness, a solid plan for moving through the initial crisis and long-term damage control.

Developing a crisis communications plan helps with all steps of the process and more.


Written by Stacy Jones. (LinkedIn)

Stacy Jones is senior project director with The Shoestring Agency. Stacy can be reached at or 1-888-835-6236.