Scandal, crisis and abusing your non-profit brand

crisis2Sometimes 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.
crisis3For 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:

  1. People have long memories
  2. Donors are often not very forgiving
  3. 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?

  1. You should have written policies designed to minimize your liability and exposure.
  2. You should have plans designed to help guide your agency through crisis (e.g. crisis communications plan).
  3. You should review yours plans and policies every year.
  4. You should be sitting down with your top donors every year just to touch base and see what they’re thinking.

Plans & Policies
crisis1You 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.
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit Governance: The Work of the Board, part 3

Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to the first Wednesday of each month about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on 

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 3

Setting policy

By Dani Robbins

policies1Welcome to part three of our five-part series on Governance. We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive and Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent. Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in setting policy.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing an organization. As outlined in my favorite Board book Governance as Leadership and summarized in The Role of the Board, the Fiduciary Mode is where governance begins for all boards and ends for too many. I encourage you to also explore the Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance, which will greatly improve your board’s engagement, and also their enjoyment.

At a minimum, governance includes:

  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan,
  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director,
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent,
  • Setting Policy, and
  • Raising Money.

One of my goals for this post is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling nonprofit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What setting policy means is:

The board discusses and votes to approve (or not) all policies and plans. Policies are usually recommended by (and often written by) the CEO, also called the Executive Director. Plans are usually drafted by committee. Both must be approved by the Board.

Procedures, on the other hand, are set by the CEO, often in consultation with the staff. The difference is the difference between the rules and the law. You can get fired for violating a policy (law), but not usually a procedure (rule).

Policies, plans, and procedures set the boundaries for people to act.

policies2I recommend organizations have the following policies:

  • Personnel
  • Financial
  • Crisis Management and Communication
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Confidentiality
  • Whistle Blowing/Ethics

Policies dictate what happens in defined set of circumstances. I occasionally get calls from people who want to create a policy they don’t really need because they are trying to avoid addressing an issue directly. Do not create a policy to avoid having a conversation. Have the conversation, and then decide if you need a policy.

That said there are policies you definitely need.

For example (and among other things), the personnel policy determines what benefits staff get; the financial policy sets who can sign checks and for what amount; the crisis communication policy determines who speaks for the organization; the crisis management plan dictates what to do if there is an intruder; the conflict of interest policy states how conflicts are managed; the confidentially policy requires a process to protect information; and a whistle blower policy provides a path to report violations.

A reporter sticking a camera in the face of your most disengaged staff member is not the time to decide who speaks for your organization. Having a crisis communication policy will make all the difference in the organization’s ability to continue to provide services after a crisis, and the community’s ability to be confident in your ability to do so. The absence of a single point of contact allows for a variety of messages from a multitude of people — who may or may not be affiliated with your organization — to be shared with the community, which at a best will dilute your ability to control the story and at worst will open the door to a new set of issues for people to judge you by. As all of our moms taught us, a reputation takes a lifetime to build and just a few minutes to destroy.

plans1Policies address today. Plans take you into the future.

I recommend organizations have the following plans:

  • Board Development
  • Marketing
  • Resource Development
  • Strategic Plan
  • Succession Plan

Plans determine what path you will follow in what circumstances.

For example (and among other things), a Board Development plan dictates what process will be followed to bring on new Board members; a marketing plan determines what materials you will create and how they will be disseminated; a resource development plan lays out how you will raise contributed income; a strategic plan states where you are going as an organization and how you plan to get there; and a succession plan ensures continuity by outlining how leadership will be perpetuated.

Plans, policies and procedures can address or eliminate many of the issues that come up on a day-to-day basis that distract from your mission and moving the needle for your community.

What’s been your experience? As always, I welcome your insight and experience.
dani sig

Non-profit lessons from the Middle East

On Tuesday, I joined the Fox West Philanthropic Network and attended my first meeting in Geneva, Illinois. The program that day focused on social media and the value it brings to non-profit organizations as a marketing tool. While no one openly expressed doubts about the premise of the presentation, I could almost hear some of the more “old school fundraising professionals”  questioning the effectiveness of “this social media thing“.

On Wednesday morning, I learned (via Twitter) that the United States’ embassies in Egypt and Libya were under siege and American foreign service employees had been killed. This morning protests and violence seem to be spreading. After a quick Google search, I learned from a Washington Post article that the embassy in Yemen had been breached, and protests are now occurring in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where is this all coming from? Why are so many people angry? According to the Washington Post:

The spreading violence comes as outrage grows over a movie called “Innocence of Muslims” that mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The amateurish video was produced in the U.S. and excerpted on YouTube.”

You read that right . . . a crappy little YouTube video produced in California provoked action (aka mass violence and death) half way around the world.

For those of you who still think that this “social media thing” is a passing fad and holds little to no value for non-profit organization, I direct your attention to the Middle East and ask that you please re-think your position on these very powerful communication tools.

I believe there are a number of lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn about social media from recent events emanating from the other side of the planet. The following are just a few revelations I’ve recently had:

  1. Facebook and Twitter were used as powerful tools of revolution that fueled the “Arab Spring”. If these tools can fuel a revolution and overthrow powerful dictators, then these tools can be useful to non-profit organizations who wish to communicate with clients, supporters, volunteers, staff and donors.
  2. YouTube is especially powerful because it visual in nature. If one YouTube video can cause this much action half way around the world, then your agency can figure out how to introduce people to your mission and engage them in doing good.
  3. These new communication technologies are powerful and shouldn’t be misused because the consequences can be huge and unforeseeable. If you don’t know about The Butterfly Effect, then I suggest you read up on it before developing any social media strategy.
  4. Oh yeah . . . you probably should steer clear of anything to do with the Prophet Muhammad when it comes to your social media strategy.

Developing your organization’s social media strategy will not be easy. What works for the agency down the street from you, won’t necessarily work for you. I encourage you be brave and commit to experimenting. Those things that don’t feel right or don’t work . . . don’t do them again. Don’t be reckless (please see observation #4 above), but commit yourself to learning and be prepared to celebrate failure.

The following YouTube video washed into my email inbox just a few weeks ago from a small non-profit agency in Wheaton, Illinois called Senior Home Sharing:


There are a lot of things I would’ve done differently, but you have to applaud this organization for what they are trying to accomplish and message to potential clients, supporters, and donors.

The following are a few resources you may want to investigate if recent Middle East events have changed your mind about your non-profit organization’s approach to social media:

Good luck, and you may want to go back an re-read my list of observations and keep in the back of your mind my fourth observation as you proceed.

How does your agency use YouTube? Has it been effective? How do you know? Do you have a written social media plan? Policies? Are you willing to share those things with other non-profit professionals? Please scroll down to the comment box and take a moment to share your thoughts, experiences, and answers to one or more of these questions. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

The Sounds of Annual Campaign Planning: Part 4

As most of you already know, I am dedicating all of this week’s blog posts to the 2012 annual campaign planning process, and I’m putting it all to music just for the fun of it. Today’s post focuses on constructing your campaign’s policies.

Cue the music . . . click here for your first musical selection then start reading.  🙂

First, let me admit that I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to skipping the policy writing part of the annual campaign planning process. For some reason, I always saw this exercise as a harmless corner that could be cut without too much damage being done. For this reason, it is important to address this question first: “Why should you write policies pertaining specifically to your annual campaign?”

When in doubt, I always say “Google It!!!” … so I did and found this great little blurb straight out of a U.S. Department of Agriculture manual:

“Policies give direction to plans. They are a road map [that] management can follow to reach goals and attain objectives. Well written policy facilitates delegation of authority to the lowest feasible level . . . “

Let me use an example to help illustrate the importance of this wonderful little blurb and put it into context for a volunteer-driven fundraising campaign. So, let’s say I am sitting with a donor and just asked her to consider making a pledge of $1,000 to our annual campaign. The donor seems agreeable, but has some questions. I handle the first few questions flawlessly, but then we start getting into territory where I don’t have the slightest idea of what the answer might be (e.g. can the gift be paid for in stock, how much time does the donor have to pay-off their pledge, etc). Uh-oh! Maybe I shouldn’t “close the deal” right now because I need to find some answers to this donors questions.

Volunteers are already super reluctant to participate in face-to-face solicitations. One of their many fears is being unable to answer a donor’s question (or providing inaccurate answers to their questions).

From a staff perspective, written policies are your friend because they keep volunteers from calling you every other time with questions about whether or not something can be done. When your volunteer solicitors are empowered with that kind of knowledge, they are more successful at “closing the gift” and have fewer prospects to follow-up with after the original solicitation call.

Overall, writing campaign policies saves both staff and volunteers time and increases a volunteer’s confidence heading into a solicitation call.

Writing policies does not need to be a difficult or time-consuming part of your annual campaign planning process. I encourage staff and campaign volunteers to sit down and make a list of commonly asked questions. I suspect the following questions might be found on most lists:

  • How often can the non-profit send me a pledge reminder (e.g. how many payments can I slice my pledge into)? Or can you bill me on an irregular schedule of May, August, November and December?
  • By when do I need to have my pledge paid?
  • Do you accept stock as a form of payment? Or can I pay my contribution with a credit card?
  • Do you accept in-kind contributions, too? (e.g. cars, computer equipment, etc)
  • Will you send me an acknowledgement letter that I can give to my accountant for tax purposes? How soon will I get that documentation?
  • Will you share my name and contract information with other companies?
  • Can I make this contribution anonymously?
  • I hate receiving all that junk mail from charities . . . can I opt out of those mailings (e.g. newsletter, etc)?
  • I don’t like public recognition, can you keep my name off of donor honor rolls, newsletter recognition and the website?
  • May I designate my annual campaign contribution to a specific program or to a future building fund?

This list can go on and on and on, which can make this step in the planning process look time-consuming. So, I encourage you to not get carried away. If you haven’t ever written campaign policies, then start small. You can always add written policies in the future.

If you already have written resource development policies as part of your organization’s written resource development plan, then you may not have to re-invent the wheel. However, staff and volunteers should still take a moment to review those policies to ensure there isn’t anything missing from an annual campaign perspective.

If you are a “googling fool” like me, it will be a challenge to find samples if you try searching “annual campaign policies”. I suggest searching on phrases such as: “donor recognition policies” or “fundraising policies”. You’ll have a little more success. Or you can just facilitate an organic exercise and ask questions like the ones I pose above.

The biggest thing to remember is: involve your volunteers in this process. This is NOT a staff-only activity. Don’t forget that these written policies exist to help your volunteer solicitors feel more confident and get “The Question Song” out of their head before/during/after a solicitation call. So, excluding them from this process would be counter-productive.

ALSO … don’t forget that only the board of directors has the ability to bring written policies to life. So, whatever the annual campaign committee decides needs to be reviewed and approved by the board.

Does your organization have written policies that help guide your annual campaign? If so, are you willing to share them with others? How did you develop your policies? How and when do you educate volunteer solicitors on these policies before sending them out to talk to donors?

Please use the comment box below to answer some of these questions. As I always say, we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847