In the Eye of the Storm

Posted by Joan Ulmer on November 14th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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A recent conversation had me struggling with a question:  why do we in the nonprofit sector always wait until we are caught with our pants down to figure out what to do about what is often a predictable circumstance?  Why don’t we plan for the crises that we know there is a good probability we will face?  Did everyone run out after Superstorm Sandy (or the preceding hurricanes) and create disaster plans and/or data protection plans?

After Reel Grrls  and Hispanics United of Buffalo captured everyone’s attention, and in the latter case a legal battle, about how employees may use their personal social media outlets on their own time to talk about what happens at work, did everyone run out and create a social media use policy?

So, why would things be any different for any other type of crisis?  Big, small, potentially big, potentially small?  And yet, intellectually, you know that the time to create a policy is not when you are in the throes of the crisis.  That is not a time for level headed minds to meet and discuss; that is not a time for objectivity; that is not a time for learning best practices, or even practices of organizations that you respect.  In the crisis, it is all about immediacy and addressing the problem as quickly as possible, resolving the issues, controlling the media, handling the spin, protecting the reputation, etc.

After all, that is what crisis management must be all about for nonprofits:  managing things so that our reputation—the trust and respect that others, from our clients to our donors to our staff to all our stakeholders, have in and for us—isn’t harmed.  Why, oh why, would we want to leave that to minds scrambled by crisis?  In essence, why would we want to leave this to chance?

The issue at the focus of the conversation that got me going down this road was what do you do when a board member is suspected of, or arrested for, a criminal offense, regardless of whether the media has already got wind of it.  Upon hearing the question, my mind went immediately to the bylaws—that set of policies that, like all policies, protects us.  Every organization creates policies to achieve three things:  efficiency, effectiveness and—herein lies the protection—consistency.  These guidelines that are our policies ensure that we treat every situation the same, regardless of the player(s) involved is.

But I was the only one who went there; the others took the conversation to where it goes when you wait until the crisis to figure out what to do:  they got mired in the big picture and the philosophical:  What about innocent until proven guilty?  What if it is a really good board member?  What if the board member is well connected? a major donor? long-serving?  hard-working?  This is all important in writing the press release and other statements to the media; this is all important to the spin.  In the press release announcing the board member’s leave of absence or departure from the board, the language used for a valued individual might be things like, “We regretfully accepted the resignation from the board…” and “we appreciate all that he has done” and “we hope there will be time in the future when we can welcome him back.”  Language for a non-valued board member might leave out the adjectives and the praise and be much more matter of fact.

Too many boards have faced this situation—a board member’s behavior that puts the nonprofit with which s/he is affiliated in a potentially bad light—without the necessary tools and, therefore, protection needed.  Again, why, I don’t know, as sadly the odds are not in a board’s favor.  But with a good set of bylaws (which few nonprofits have) and people knowing what the bylaws say, along with a couple of additional policies and/or procedures, such a situation can quickly be addressed.   So, what do bylaws need?

  1. A clear section addressing why (with or without cause or just for cause, with a list of specified causes) and how (by a 2/3 vote of a duly convened board meeting) a board member may be removed from the board. (A parallel clause should also address how an officer is removed from office, making clear whether removal from office does or doesn’t also remove the person from the board, as well.)  The bylaws clause may specify the procedure by which this removal happens (must notice be given that this motion will be presented at the board meeting, may the subject of the motion be permitted to speak, etc.) or, preferably, the bylaws could reference the procedure to match this removal policy, kept separately, and the process for removal spelled out there.  The removal clause should also specify if removal is with or without prejudice, allowing an individual to be elected back onto the board at a subsequent time, or not.
  2. If, after a discussion by the full board, board members wish to have the option of granting a board member a leave of absence, there should be a section in the bylaws addressing those circumstances under which such a leave may be requested by a board member or “given” by a vote of the board. As with the removal clause, a leave of absence clause should specify the why and the how, leaving procedure to be addressed outside of the bylaws.
  3. Make sure that the section addressing special meetings allows a special meeting to be called within hours—48 or 72—and not days or weeks. While not always true, special meetings are far more likely to be needed yesterday, rather than in two weeks, so be sure that clause allows for urgency.  Additionally, it is important that a special meeting not be the purview of just the board president/chair, but that a small number of board members may call for such a meeting and that call must be honored

Beyond the bylaws, here’s what else is needed:

  • A code of conduct that spells out behavioral expectations for being a board member. This code of conduct should identify the desired practices for all board members when they are acting as your board members—which is 24/7!  Obviously, violation of any item in the code of conduct would be cause for removing a board member.  Every board member should sign this code of conduct annually.  It is in creating this code of conduct where philosophical discussions, such as the premise of innocent until proven guilty, can take place, and decisions made that are consistent with an organization’s mission and core values.
  • A crisis communication plan, which every organization should have for the big, little and everything in between crises. It should, among other things, specify who is the official spokesperson for the organization, and who is the backup.  (And, just so we are clear, anyone who violates that and speaks out of turn would have cause to be removed as board member.)  How will you communicate with the traditional media and use/not use social media?  (And, going back to the two examples where I started, how will violators of this be addressed?)  Today, with the way things go viral, failure to plan for how you will respond or not to how social media runs with your crisis is short-sighted and inexcusable.

If you do nothing else after reading this blog, put in motion the wheels to create a crisis communication plan.  How and what you communicate during a crisis is as important as what you do.  With a crisis communication plan in hand you only have to deal with the other 50% of the problem!

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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