Sometimes I think the universe speaks to us, and lately it has been begging me to write this blog. Over the last few months, I’ve spoken with a good handful of non-profit professionals who have shared stories of scandal and crisis that would make your toes curl. These stories have ranged from incidents on the front line that made the local newspaper to outright embezzlement.
The tipping point for me was last week when I was visiting a client and prior to the start of our meeting a board volunteer brought up the name of William Aramony.
Now before I proceed let me say that a number of my United Way friends are rolling their eyes right now. I can almost hear them saying, “Come on, Erik. Give us a break. Do you have to tell that horrible story again? It is so 20th Century and stuff for the history books.”
For the record, I agree with my United Way friends. If you don’t know about William Aramony, what you need to know for this blog post is:
- He was an iconic CEO of United Way of America
- He was accused of wrongdoing
- It was a national news story for a long time
- He ultimately resigned and served a little jail time
The details of the scandal aren’t important here. What is important is that this scandal occurred in 1990, which is more than 20 years ago. Heck, Bill Aramony died in 2011. But this story has legs as they say in the news industry.
The board volunteer who raised the specter of Bill Aramony last week did so almost as if that news story had just happened recently.
I am trying to make the following points:
- People have long memories
- Donors are often not very forgiving
- Scandals can do long term damage to your brand
Perhaps, I am a cynic on this subject, but I believe that all non-profit organizations are likely to experience scandal at least a few times in their organization’s life span. There is bound to be an incident where accusations are made and lawsuits are filed. When you deal with employees, there is likely going to be a messy HR issue from time to time.
I think Abraham Lincoln put it best when he said:
“You can please some of the people some of the time all of the people some of the time some of the people all of the time but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”
So, what should a non-profit do to prepare itself?
- You should have written policies designed to minimize your liability and exposure.
- You should have plans designed to help guide your agency through crisis (e.g. crisis communications plan).
- You should review yours plans and policies every year.
- You should be sitting down with your top donors every year just to touch base and see what they’re thinking.
Plans & Policies
You can probably spend the rest of your life writing policies, but let’s not get carried away. Here are a few questions I suggest you ask as you start going down this road:
- Do you have a criminal background check policy when it comes to your employees, volunteers and board members?
- Do you have policies pertaining to the safety and security of your clients?
- Do you have policies that address the subject of injuries?
- Does your organization utilize technology? If so, do you have policies addressing the use of technology?
- Do you have an employee handbook or employment policies?
- Do you have a written crisis management plan? If so, do you review it often with staff and clients? (e.g. fire drills, etc)
- Do you have a crisis communications plan?
- Do you have appropriate insurance coverage? How do you know? How often do you review it?
I suspect you have some of this in place and the rest is on a to-do-list somewhere.
This is not work for your board to tackle. It is committee work. If you don’t believe in standing committees of the board, then it is task force work.
But the bottom line is that it is WORK. Work to develop them. Work to regularly review them. Work to monitor them and assure compliance.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work because it only takes one good crisis or scandal to do series damage to your non-profit brand.
If you don’t believe me, go ask your local United Way executive director to tell you about William Aramony. Just be prepared to get an earful. 😉
Has your organization (or another one in your community) ever had to dig out of a big hole created by crisis or scandal? If so, how long did it take? What did you do to reset the playing field? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC