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An unexpected crisis can dominate a charity and stagnate a charity’s activities. Knowing the essential steps in dealing with a crisis is important and can save considerable time and anguish if one were to arise.
In February 2018, there was a spate of high-profile charities facing public scandals. In short order, Oxfam and Save the Children were in the media spotlight due to safeguarding issues.
It is tempting to fly into a blind panic when a crisis erupts, but it is helpful to remember a few key lessons if you find yourself in any similar situation.
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
Any crisis engulfs the CEO and the Chair (unless of course it involves the CEO, in which case, see below). The CEO has to dedicate all of their time to resolving the crisis and to dealing with all the other items listed in this article. It is therefore important to immediately institute efficient delegation of all non-essential activities to allow business to continue as usual as is possible. If you have a trusted Number 2, then empower them to get on with running the day-to-day activity while you concentrate on the crisis. But remember, it is to delegate, and not to abdicate. The CEO remains ultimately answerable.
Communicate to the staff
It seems counterintuitive but you will benefit immensely from keeping your staff as up to date as possible. You need them to carry the load for you so give them as much information as you can. Take a benign approach to confidentiality. Let the staff know what they can and should say to stakeholders and anybody who asks them. It is time to trust your staff. They will reward this trust by taking a responsible approach to confidentiality and to putting all hands to the pump.
The Charity Commission
The Commission is the most significant stakeholder in any crisis for a charity. The first formal step you have to take, after you have notified your Chair and Trustees, is to file a Serious Incident Report with the Commission. Even if you have limited information and you have not yet worked out how you are going to respond, complete the filing and give as much information as you have. This achieves two things. Firstly, it allows the Commission to confirm to the media that they have received a Serious Incident Report. That immediately limits what they can say and cuts off one of the legs of a story. Secondly, the Commission staff will be willing to hold your hand through the stages especially if you have not had to file such a Report before.
Be open and transparent
A charity has a wide range of stakeholders. Aside from your Trustees, whose legal responsibilities ramp up at a time of crisis, you may also have a Governing Council. You will certainly have donors, service users, members and grant recipients, consultants and partners. It is very important to maintain rapid, regular and transparent communication to all stakeholders. If they can hear of the crisis from you and not from the press, they will appreciate it. The more open you can be, the more they will appreciate it, and the better your chance of retaining their confidence for the aftermath, when the crisis has passed. There is little downside to being open, honest and transparent.
Take specialist advice
Take my word for this – however experienced you think you are individually or organisationally at dealing with the media, in a crisis, you will benefit from specialist external advice. It can be expensive, but if you have a specialist that has dealt with crises before, they can help you to manage your messages both externally and internally. At the beginning of a crisis, especially one that has blown up in the media, a communications specialist can provide reassuring expertise and support.
Plug any leaks
Leaks of information or anonymous sources revealing information can undermine your attempt to control messaging. They can be infuriating. If you suspect there is a leak anywhere in the system, and I mean anywhere, you must close that leak down. You will have to read the riot act and take measures to protect information. This can be difficult if the leak is suspected from your Trustee or governing body. But if you suspect a leak, you really have to take steps to close the leak down.
Whistleblowers have, quite rightly, earned protected status in the charitable world and are legally entitled to full protection under the law and under charitable best practice. If the crisis involves a whistleblower in any way, it falls on you to do everything you can to protect that whistleblower’s anonymity and employment rights. They have the law on their side and you really have to protect them.
What if the crisis involves the CEO?
How can you best protect the Trustees when the crisis involves allegations regarding the CEO? Do Trustees know what to do when the CEO is not around to drive the process? Almost certainly not. That is why your job as CEO is to ensure that your Chair and Trustees know that they should immediately contact the Charity Commission and file a Serious Incident Report. They should know to suspend the CEO pending an investigation, to appoint an acting Senior Executive and to take expert advice to hold their hand. It may seem odd to do this, but a good CEO will take care to ensure that the charity does not collapse if they are not around to handle the crisis.
The specific role of “professional” Trustees
Charity law and practice is beginning to impose additional duties on so called “professional” trustees. This includes mainly Trustees who are accountants and lawyers. Even if they are not Trustees in their professional capacities, law and practice seems to suggest that Trustees can be deemed to have relied on these professional trustees as though they were giving advice. Therefore, professional trustees, if a crisis arises and indeed generally, should be sure to state for the minutes, if an issue crops up within their field of expertise, that their opinions should not be taken as formal advice. They should ensure that appropriate advice is taken and not get sucked into doing a favour for the Chair or Trustees.
The vast majority of people will sail through their career without encountering a crisis. But if one strikes, it should be possible to emerge stronger from the crisis.
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