Updated: Jul 19, 2021
This week, a network of organizations I care deeply about had its dirty laundry aired very, very publicly.
Having internal crises made public is incredibly stressful. Not only do you have to manage through it, you have to do all kinds of damage control.
It’s not like when your organization is in crisis because of a global pandemic. Crises driven by external factors have the potential to catalyze support for your organization.
Internal dramas or scandals, on the other hand, are self-inflicted wounds that undermine trust in your organization and have the potential to drive supporters away.
Donors invest in your organization because they care about the impact you have in the world. Internal conflicts distract from mission. And they distract from impact.
When that happens, investors in your organization—your donors—will rightfully get very, very nervous about whether you are the right investment for them.
Donors will wonder if you are going to survive the turmoil. They wonder if you can achieve your mission. They are likely to start shopping around to see who else in your space is having impact they care about with more stable management.
So what do you do when an internal crisis becomes an external crisis?
1. Have a vision for moving forward.
Crises happen. What matters is that you have a vision and a plan to fix the problems and emerge from it all stronger than you were before. This is first and foremost what you want to be communicating to your donors.
So be ready to have an answer when you’re asked what you’re going to do now. And make sure every conversation you have pivots to looking forward.
2. Talk to your donors right away.
When we don’t have all the information we need to understand something, we tend to insert our own details. Connect our own dots. Draw our own conclusions. It's human nature, and it’s how our brains are wired.
The same is true for your donors when internal dramas or scandals become public. Even people who know you and your organization will draw their own conclusions in the absence of information from you.
If your significant donors are allowed to draw their own conclusions, it’s unlikely that will work in your favor. If those conclusions build momentum—say on social media or within social circles—no amount of reaching out to them a month or two later will correct misconceptions or pacify their concerns.
It may be that not all of your donors will have heard the news when you contact them. That's ok too. Wouldn’t you rather they heard about it from you, with your message points and your pivot to how you’re moving forward?
3. Be transparent.
No matter how artfully you think you are dodging questions from your donors, your donors know when you’re not being straight with them. A lack of transparency sends the message that you aren’t trustworthy.
If you aren’t trustworthy, you’re not a good investment.
Instead, own what happened and express your feelings. Briefly. You don't want to be dwelling on the problem in your conversations.
Instead, you want to move quickly past it to your vision of how you’re going to fix it and move forward to become a stronger organization than you were before. Good thing determining your vision for moving forward was the first step in this process.
There are circumstances when you can’t be as transparent as you would like to be for legal reasons. Instead, be transparent about that. And don’t forget that what your donor really wants to hear is how the organization is moving forward, and focusing on that will serve you better.
4. Take the high road.
Maybe you were wronged. Things happened that weren’t your fault but you’re getting all the blame. Or maybe something happened that was unjust.
Your donors don’t care.
Your donors don’t want to relitigate all the wrongs you’ve suffered. They don’t want to hear that you are right in your internal battle. They don’t want to be involved in finger pointing.
Or, if they do, it’s because it’s really good gossip. And you don’t want to fuel that.
They want to know what comes next and how you are going to lead through it. Notice the theme?
No matter how you were wronged, be gracious, even about those who wronged you. It reflects well on you to stay above the fray, as much as you can without sacrificing the reputation of your organization.
The good news is that adversity really does have the opportunity to make your organization stronger. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to work through. Just don't doubt that with a strong vision and clear communications, you can come out the other side feeling very proud of what your organization has become.
The nonprofit leader who can do that is demonstrating leadership worth investing in. And your donors (and other stakeholders) will notice.
Megan Amundson is a nonprofit consultant who trains and coaches leaders of small and medium-sized nonprofits to raise more money from individuals.