ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021 - 10:15am

Crisis management

Illustration by Yuxin Qin

 Natalia Hurley

posted by
Natalia Hurley
Spring 2021 Alumna, ASU Master of Nonprofit Leadership & Management

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to the nonprofit sector and many organizations have had to undergo massive staffing cuts, eliminate programs, and struggle through maintaining minimal viable operations to avoid closing permanently. Many nonprofits are still unsure if they will ever be the same or even operate again. In April of 2020, Charity Navigator surveyed over 4,000 nonprofit representatives and learned that of those surveyed, 83% reported suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic and the economic shut down. About 70% stated that the organizations either suffered cut backs, or was planning on cutting programs all together. For a sector that provides pivotal services to the public, the impact is difficult to comprehend.

Last year also brought with it civil unrest, a rise in the call for social justice, and decentering of white supremacy culture. Many organizations are now finding that a crisis management plan is not the whole story. Organizations also need to consider who is leading the organization, and if their leadership style is effective. The expectations of our employees are shifting, which then impacts the way in which nonprofit leaders need to manage through a crisis. Employees are expecting authenticity, transparency, flexibility and collaboration from their leaders, characteristics of which are not typically written into crisis management plans.

Crises offer an opportunity for nonprofit professionals to step into leadership roles and requires those already in leadership to manage effectively to ensure that the board and the executive leadership teams are engaged. According to Crisis Planning in the Nonprofit Sector: Should We Plan for Something Bad If It May Not Occur?, 50% of businesses that do not have a plan in place will not survive a major crisis. It is imperative that nonprofits have a strong emergency plan in place that considers the steps it takes to overcome each phase of a crisis. Organizations should also articulate the particular characteristics and leadership traits needed for different types of crises within their plans.

Organizations need to use the time now to regroup and learn from the unpredictability faced last year. We must now address what kind of leadership style is expected, training plans, and organizational training, and include those factors into the new crisis management plan. Before the struggles of 2020 become a distant memory, nonprofit leaders need to model self-reflection and lead their teams through the exercise of identifying what was done well and what could have been done differently.

For those organizations that survive the pandemic and begin to rebuild, now is the best time to develop new habits and avoid falling back into the way things were done in the past. Once nonprofits recognize the particular leadership styles that are the most effective, then nonprofits will increase their chances of surviving a crisis.

The nonprofits that have been able to pull through the last year and the troubles that the pandemic caused to the community can provide invaluable lessons and future roadmaps for the sector, should we face another similar crisis.

Natalia Hurley is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Natalia has been working in the nonprofit sector for 10 years and is currently the Director of Guest Experience Programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. Natalia’s role includes direct oversight of public and fee-based programs, tours and special experiences, and the volunteer guide program. She is passionate about staff training and development, storytelling and working toward creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive sector. Natalia’s family is originally from Brazil and she lives in Carmel Valley, California, with her husband and two small children.

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