Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Are You Prepared for When Disaster Strikes?

This past week news has centered on little other than the devastating impact of the earthquake in Haiti. The challenges of responding to this crisis are immense. More than one newscaster has claimed the task impossible, despite the outpouring of help from around the world, the tens of millions of dollars in donations and the fact that Haiti has over 10,000 NGOs of its own to mobilize – the highest number of NGOs per capita of anywhere in the world. True, this is an extraordinary situation. But, it should serve as a lesson to all organizations in our sector. We must be prepared for the unexpected, whatever form that might take. After all, experience teaches us it is not a question of “if” something untoward will occur, but “when.”

No area in the world is immune to natural disasters. Therefore, your organization is susceptible. Is your data protected and retrievable even if your computers are smashed, looted or swept out to sea? Do you have a staffing plan where people know who is to report, under what circumstances, and where to report if your physical space can’t be reached, is uninhabitable or otherwise compromised? Do you have a means of checking up on staff who don’t immediately report to be sure that they are okay? What about a plan for providing service when your normal operations are disrupted? How will you access critical supplies? How will you determine which programs have priority if you cannot, for some reason, provide them all? Do you have a process in place for communicating with your clients if basic telecommunications are disrupted? How will you triage their needs? Do you have agreements with other organizations to work together or even take over for you in times like these?

Then there are man-made disasters, which are even more likely to occur. Pick up a newspaper almost any day and there is a story about someone in the public eye who said something politically incorrect when out with “friends” or in front of a live microphone that was assumed to be off. It can happen to your executive administrator or a visible member of your board. What about a trusted staff member or volunteer who absconds with organizational funds? Or, a program that gets bad publicity? Perhaps someone associated with your organization is accused of sexual harassment. Or, your property is burglarized or significantly vandalized. The possibilities are endless. Are you prepared to handle them quickly and intelligently? Have you identified an organizational spokesperson who will serve as the (only) voice of the organization in these circumstances? Do you have a policy for whether you will be proactive or reactive in dealing with the press? A script by which you control the spin? What about procedures for staying in the public’s good graces?

While it is never possible to cover all contingencies, having risk and crisis management plans in place that deal with the most likely will serve you in good stead. Not only will you be able to quickly respond to the situations you’ve previously identified, you will have a plan from which to start – one you can adapt – when faced with the unexpected.

Few people like thinking about worst case scenarios – it’s why so many die without wills, despite the knowledge that we all will die. However, your organization made a commitment to the community when it opened its doors. You cannot afford to be ill prepared to meet that commitment. As such, you need plans that are updated as new situations reveal missing elements. Bring key stakeholders in today and start them brainstorming. Tomorrow may be too late.

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