Your Foundation in Crisis: Will You Be Ready?

by Davia Temin, CEO, Temin and Company

Crisis is turning into the “new normal” for most organizations and corporations in this post-recession era. And foundations are as vulnerable and prone to crisis as public companies and universities, particularly in the age of social media. Today, news — the good and the bad — can travel around the globe at the speed of electrons. We know that foundations and nonprofits need to be proactive before a crisis hits, and wisely reactive in real time when it does hit. Reputation, credibility and funding hang in the balance — both for the foundation and its grantees.

We also know that taking the right steps during a crisis, and reacting in the right way at the right time, can make all the difference for the organization between barely surviving and thriving. But how does a foundation executive know how he or she, or their staff, will really react when a crisis does hit? Reactions are not always predictable, so unless one has lived through crisis before, one is never sure. And this can make all the difference.

With over 25 years of experience as a professional crisis manager, I mostly feel as if I’ve seen it all — from drug recalls and product tampering to financial mismanagement at public universities; from sexual harassment and scandal to government investigations; from environmental disaster and recovery to website and social media hackings. These tough ordeals can have potentially disastrous results. And these crises can be both very private and extraordinarily public.

In my practice, I have found that the one way to predict how leaders will react to crisis is through role-play. So, for the past seven years, I have been creating a portfolio of “crisis cases” for various industries and then leading boards, university presidents, senior leadership teams, CEO groups such as the Young Presidents’ Organization, and industry groups through the crises, act-by-act, step-by-step.

Based on the “Media and Society Seminars” created by former CBS news producer Fred Friendly — with whom I had worked — that aired on PBS, each case approximates a real crisis. They are complex, uneven, unclear and unfold quite unpredictably! And participants, as I lead them through each “act” of the drama, play roles that are different from their usual ones, and react to the issues in real time. And as they do, they start to see how they react to crisis, and learn some lessons at the same time.

So, on March 27th, I presented a new social media “crisis case” at Philanthropy New York for a group of senior foundation leaders. The interactive, hands-on seminar allowed 10 foundation executives to role-play and react to a simulated crisis, while the rest of the group observed.

Participants were selected to play characters both internal and external to the “crisis case” foundation, including executives, board members, a grantee and members of the press. As the drama and seriousness of the foundation’s “crisis” intensified, it was fascinating to witness how participants transformed themselves into their assigned roles.

Throughout the mounting social media “crisis,” participants and audience members were asked how they thought the organization and its employees should proceed. Participants had varying instincts and opinions about what to do next: Do we assemble the board? Do we hire an external crisis manager? What does our legal counsel suggest? Assumptions of how to act under a particular set of crisis circumstances were tested. Emotions ran high as those in the room debated and mulled over the proper course of action.

Many audience members were seasoned nonprofit and foundation professionals, and most (if not all) had seen their own share of crises — some of which were managed well, while others were devastating to the organization and its beneficiaries. Highly engaged, they were eager to share personal experiences from crises in their own organizations and quick to point out the mistakes of the characters, making suggestions about what they should have done differently.

It was a great learning experience — intense, engaging and fun — and the best way to learn, in my opinion!

Over time, I have developed more than 125 rules of crisis management. And though not all rules apply to all situations, usually among them are appropriate lessons that can be helpful in most situations.

Two we discussed that are almost universal pertain to the very beginning of a crisis. First, just because you may have gotten away with something before — or know of others who have — do not assume that you will do so now. Assume that — eventually — all will be known, and design your actions accordingly. Second, move quickly to assess the situation and damage, and to not only publicly strike the right note, but to start doing the right things to fix the root cause of the situation.

By the end of the game, the audience had walked through a worst-case scenario and learned invaluable lessons about planning for, mitigating and managing an organizational crisis. And we even added a few lessons to the list!

If you would like to receive a copy of “13 of 125 Crisis Management Tips,” please email me, or go to our website, and we will be pleased to email them to you.

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