Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How nonprofit leaders can successfully navigate the rough waters of a crisis

Weather icons

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that a crisis can come in all different shapes and sizes, and it can impact just about anyone and everyone. The nonprofit sector has taken a significant hit during the pandemic and become a strong reminder that nonprofit leaders need to have the skills to plan and guide their organization through a crisis successfully. Nonprofits provide vital resources and services to society, therefore having a higher level of crisis resistance will increase a nonprofit’s effectiveness.

A crisis management plan is essential for all leaders and their organization to have. Some organizations fail to create a plan because it takes time and resources, however, it is important to realize that organizations that lack any type of plan when a crisis hits have a significantly lower rate of survival. There is no “one size fits all” type of crisis management plan, but leaders who have been through and survived significant crises have given the following recommendation for successfully working through one.

Develop a vision and plan of action to get through the crisis

Leaders have to make decisions quickly during a crisis, so when one strikes, nonprofit leaders need to create a plan of action. This plan of action should include a vision of what the organization wants to achieve during the crisis, and it should be based upon their mission statement.

Maintain situational awareness

Make sure you know what the actual crisis is by listening, asking open-ended questions, and challenging assumptions. It is only when you completely understand the problem that you know how to get your organization through it.

Be adaptive and have strong decision-making abilities

A crisis can change things quickly and leaders need to be able to adapt and make quick decisions. Have the right people placed on a crisis management team and use those people to make sure the right decisions are being made.

Maintain a good relationship with the executive board

When creating a crisis management plan, the board needs to be part of it, and their role should be defined. Create ways in which the board is able to offer oversight and make quick decisions when necessary.

Communication is key!

When your employees, clients, and stakeholders are left in the dark, rumors can fly and people begin to lose confidence. Communication needs to happen often and with as much transparency as possible. Have a strong public relations plan during a crisis and make sure accurate information is being communicated.

Self-care is essential

Burnout during a crisis can happen quickly. Take time out for yourself and make sure you are sleeping, eating well, exercising, and find ways to mentally decompress. This is also the case for your employees. Be aware of how they are doing emotionally and physically and find ways to circumvent burnout. The best leaders lead by example. If you are taking care of yourself then your employees will as well.

Learn from the crisis

Make After Action Reviews part of the crisis management process. Ask the questions:

  • What is working?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What did we learn?
  • What can we do differently?

Teams can make better plans and adjustments to adapt to the everchanging circumstances crises creates when these types of questions are asked often. When the crisis is over, have an organization-wide After Action Review, and use the lessons learned to strengthen your crisis management plan.

Crisis can lead to positive change

When a leader is able to successfully bring their nonprofit through a crisis, they can use the lessons learned to evaluate the organization and reimagine it. Use the crisis to make your organization better. Make sure your mission and vision are strong. Evaluate all the programs to see if they are needed and have the impact desired. Assess the organization’s financial health and determine how much it will cost to do what you want to do. Then create a plan to increase or strengthen revenue so that you can have the impact on society that your organization has set out to achieve. A crisis can strengthen, weaken, or destroy a nonprofit. As a leader, your responsibility is to have the best practices in place to navigate the ugly waters of a crisis. No organization is immune to a crisis, so it is of vital importance that as a leader you are prepared for one.

Tammy Fairweather is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She is the executive director and co-founder of Arise Ministries. They rescue abused, abandoned and neglected children in the Philippines and provide a home and future for them through rehabilitation and education. Tammy's passion is for bringing hope, healing, and redemption to marginalized children who are victims of abuse and trauma. She is a wife and mother of five amazing children and when she have free time (haha) she enjoys soaking up the sun on the beach and reading a good book.

Tammy Fairweather


ASU Lodestar Center Blog