It’s the secret fear of every nonprofit communicator: you get a phone call in the middle of the night telling you [insert your nightmare scenario here]. Whether it’s funding woes, a staffer gone rogue, or a public gaffe by a board member, every nonprofit is vulnerable to the human foibles that can cause real problems for even the most well-meaning organization. Current events, changing conditions, attacks by the opposition, and other variables beyond our control can throw even the best-laid plans off track.

Adding to the potential for drama when it comes to breaches of public trust, nonprofits can be judged especially harshly because of their distinctive mission-focused role in society. So what’s the best way to manage crisis communications if the $&!# hits the fan at your nonprofit? Keep the crisis from happening in the first place, of course!

Avoid avoidance. Far too many nonprofits ignore a potential crisis until the situation is on an inexorable path toward something worse. Is your organization like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand and keister hanging out, vulnerability exposed for all the world to see? You can either paint a bull’s eye on that thing and wait for the inevitable — or you can keep your noggin’ out of the sand so you can face the challenge ahead.

Conduct a simmer scan. A simmer scan is a simple exercise to help you spot potential crises and prevent them from ever becoming an issue. Gather your management team in a room, close the door, and have a open, confidential conversation. Ask your team to look at your organization’s operations, finances, controversial program work, genius yet outspoken staff — any and all vulnerabilities. Then, candidly assess: What’s keeping your team awake at night? What neglected issues are simmering on the back burner? And which of those neglected issues threaten to boil over and make a mess?

Take Action. Not only will this simmer scan help your communications team prepare, it’s guaranteed to help your team deal with the drama before it happens. It might mean that your team has to digest some spicy meatballs, but a vast majority of communications crises can be stopped dead in their tracks through a candid conversation.

Based on the work we communications folks do in the nonprofit sector, it’s inevitable that you’ll face a high-profile situation that will demand a smart response. With simmer scan firmly in hand, you’ll be able to see those issues coming and be able to prepare and align your team so you can weather the storm with aplomb.

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Holly Minch will be offering further tips on crisis communications at a workshop presented in partnership with CompassPoint Nonprofit Services on May 17. She earned her crisis communications chops helping a client face a bomb threat at a 10,000+ person event, all while wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Just ask and she will happily tell you the story….

(image courtesy Flickr user Indi Samarajiva, Creative Commons)