Hallmarks of a Risk-Aware Nonprofit

Hallmark #8: Tells It Like It Is

The Challenge

The nonprofit sector has heard the mantra “accountability and transparency” so often that those words are losing their important message. Yet, accountability and transparency are all-important in nonprofit risk management. A nonprofit that ‘tells it like it is,’ does not lie and does not hide the truth; does not mislead and does not beat around the bush.

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” rings true in the world of risk management. Whether an organization is communicating cautionary information (“please don’t use a handheld cell phone while driving clients to a service site!”) or explaining a new procedure (“from now on we will require that parents sign a separate permission slip for each event”), the words chosen, method of communication and delivery style have a tremendous effect on the ability and willingness of the listener/recipient to understand the change, endorse the change, and alter their behavior to confirm with the new reality. Messages should be kept simple, clear and direct, and organizations should follow the adage, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”

Deception can destroy a nonprofit’s reputation and land its managers in jail. In contrast, nonprofits that ‘tell it like it is’ gain the respect of their peers, their clients, their professional advisors and government regulators.

The Process

To demonstrate that your nonprofit ‘tells it like it is,’ your nonprofit will:

  1. Rigorously review the nonprofit’s web site to ensure that it portrays accurate written information and accurate photos or graphics that reflect or portray the nonprofit’s own programs and activities.
  2. Determine who at the nonprofit is the appropriate person to be the “media spokesperson” and make sure that all staff know who the spokesperson is.
  3. Adopt a procedure for approval of all external communications and statements.
  4. File timely and accurate annual reports with the IRS and state(s) where the nonprofit does business.
  5. Accurately portray the nonprofit’s financial status to its board and staff at all times.
  6. Communicate the good and the bad honestly and clearly to all stakeholders.
  7. Publish, whether on-line or in print, accurate information about the nonprofit’s programs and activities.
  8. Establish a communication plan to respond to crises that is pre-approved by senior staff and/or board.
  9. If and when a loss occurs or mistakes have been made, make certain that you contact or update the stakeholders that are most invested in the success of the nonprofit. Stakeholders to consider include: the board, key funders, volunteers, and even government regulators (IRS, state Attorney General, and watchdog/regulatory government agencies such as HUD, OSHA, HHS, or their state equivalents), as appropriate.
  10. Draft a “Crisis Communication Plan” for your nonprofit to help you manage the message in the wake of a crisis: Goals of the plan might include:
    • Assigning responsibility for who responds in advance so that there is no scrambling around when the need arises;
    • Helping staff and board respond in a unified, professional manner that reinforces and supports the leadership in place which helps to restore public confidence;
    • Effectively reminding the public and internal stakeholders about all the good that the organization does in the community, even while explaining that something not so good has occurred.