Is Your Nonprofit Prepared for Disaster?

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

The recent string of disasters around the world, from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to the literal earth shaking events in Mexico, remind us that disasters can strike unexpectedly and have dire consequences for the ill prepared. Planning for a disaster is critical for all employers but more so for nonprofits that not only have to look after staff but also constituents. Does your nonprofit have documented emergency procedures? Have they been updated recently? Now is the time to get your ducks in a row. Consider the following:

  • If your nonprofit organization offers critical or crisis services, how will you ensure continuity of services during a disaster? Or, ensure that your services will be available shortly thereafter?
    This will be more important for some nonprofits than others, and chances are if you offer crisis services, you have a plan in place. But, for all nonprofits getting back in business after a disaster will be the focus. Contingency planning will ensure that staff know how to safely handle the situation when it arises. The best emergency procedures indicate a variety of sentinel events and the organization’s response to each, since the ability to reinstate services will differ if there is significant property damage versus just a power outage. Take the time to think these through with staff and come up with a plan. Ideally, revisit and reassess the plan annually.
  • Does your nonprofit have an emergency kit?
    This should be a no-brainer. Your kit can include emergency contact information for all staff (and constituents if they are on site), a designated safe meeting location, first aid supplies, extra supplies (i.e. flashlight, water, food, etc.), directions to the nearest hospital, and any other needs specific to your nonprofit and its location.
  • Do you have a list of vendor contact information on hand?
    We typically have access to our vendor representatives through email or a shared database, but these may not be accessible during a disaster. Including a paper copy of contact information for the various vendors your nonprofit uses will come in handy if you need to reactivate your accounts or reestablish a connection. This can include your nonprofit’s IT provider, telephone company, cable company, and third party contractors.
  • Has one staff member been assigned to lead emergency preparedness efforts?
    Identifying one lead staff member (or one per department for large organizations) not only ensures that the preparatory work gets done, but also minimizes confusion during a disaster. This staff person should schedule emergency drills, update the emergency kit as needed, update contact information. Importantly, this staff would be responsible for scheduling regular trainings to ensure that all personnel understand the nonprofit’s emergency procedures and know how to safely utilize emergency equipment (i.e. fire extinguishers, first aid kit).
  • If you share an office building, has your organization considered sharing your emergency plan with the other businesses?
    Sharing your emergency plans with the other businesses can lead to a coordinated effort during a disaster and limit confusion. Moreover, during a disaster the other businesses may have some information that yours does not so initiating that contact early on is critical. Further, if another business in your building already has an emergency plan, your organization can simply modify that to meet the specific needs of your nonprofit rather than creating a new plan from scratch.

It is easy for disaster preparedness to slip down the to-do list, especially for small nonprofit organizations that only have enough time and personnel to focus on the problem at hand. However, a simple plan and conversation with staff as little as once a year can go a long way in ensuring the safety of staff and constituents during a disaster, and get the organization back up and running quickly thereafter.

For more information on how to design an emergency plan that is appropriate for your nonprofit, check out:

Book Review: “Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups”

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Yet, many nonprofit organizations do just this. For instance, anti-hunger organizations continue to provide food for individuals and never question why the same people keep coming back. In fact, although there has been significant growth in the anti-hunger field over the last decade, hunger itself has not decreased. Clearly providing food is not solving the hunger problem- a new course of action needs to be explored.

In his book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, Andrew Fisher provides compelling arguments that force readers to take a critical eye to not only the anti-hunger movement but rather all movements that attempt solve societal issues. His over-arching argument is along the lines of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The anti-hunger movement focuses on providing food as opposed to addressing the systemic issues that cause food insecurity in the first place. Root causes such as not earning livable wages and lack of access to health care, can leave people dependent upon services which were intended for emergency use- not a substitute for fair policies.

For some readers it can appear as if Big Hunger suggests that the tireless efforts of nonprofit staff and volunteers have been for naught. However, it is safe to assume that Fisher understands that until systemic problems are solved, constituents still need access to direct services. In other words, there needs to be a split focus between advocacy that addresses systemic issues causing a problem, as well as direct service that ameliorates the problem in the meantime. It can be difficult for nonprofits to split staff time between a systemic focus and direct service focus. Yet, Fisher argues nonprofits can’t afford not to.

In many ways, the push to focus on root cause as opposed to programmatic outputs is what funders and grant makers have advocated for many years. The problem is that systemic issues cannot get solved within the scope of a few grant years. Thus, nonprofit organizations are practically encouraged to focus on short term objectives if they want to receive funding. Big Hunger does highlight several nonprofit organizations that have been able to successfully navigate receiving funding while focusing on long-term systemic change.

Who Should Read This Book?
Nonprofit staff and volunteers of all levels will find Big Hunger enlightening as Fisher drew on years of experience and data to craft this book. Aspiring and current nonprofit leaders would be wise to keep the questions raised in this book in mind as they develop programs and strategic initiatives. Executives and board of directors, however, should definitely read Big Hunger since they drive strategic planning and implementation of goals that focus on systemic change cannot be completed without their buy-in.

Have you read Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Nonprofit Administration Errors That Send Donors Running

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

Donor retention is one measurement of a strong development program- perhaps one of the best indicators of a nonprofit’s success in fundraising. But, if you think it is only the development department’s duty to focus on retention, you’re wrong. Much of development is actually driven by administration- think data, bookkeeping, and infrastructure. Small administrative mistakes can send donors running for the hills. Is your nonprofit making any of these errors and turning away donors?

Mistake 1: Not knowing exactly where donor funds are going
Impact metrics are all the buzz these days. So, what are you waiting for? Administrative staff should be pulling data that indicates how funds were used and all staff should be armed with the percentage of donor funds that goes towards programs vs. fundraising vs. administration. Better yet, plaster it on your website and social media. Kudos to nonprofits that can link donor funds to true impact, not just activities.

Mistake #2: Misspelling a donor’s name
This one is a doozy and so easy to prevent. There is nothing worse than proudly donating your hard-earned money only to have your name misspelled on the acknowledgement letter or, even worse, on the nonprofit’s website. Trust me, I know how much this sucks- just check out my last name. It may seem like a trivial issue, but names are important (duh- that’s why so many people donate oodles of cash to get their names on libraries or lecture halls). This mistake sends the powerful message to your donors that you don’t care about them or their gift. That is the exact opposite of what your donor communications should say! Double- nay, quadruple- check your data entry.

Mistake #3: Making it difficult to give
You’ve heard this before and yet a surprising number of nonprofits still have really frustrating procedures that make it difficult for donors to give. Eliminate all barriers to getting a donation- even if that means collecting less donor information. I say this because several nonprofits I have made donations to ask for my life’s history before I can make my donation. No one wants to fill out a two-page form just to donate $20. Get the donation and then ask donors additional questions. Extra communication with donors is always a good thing and this gives you a reason to reach out. Further, donors should not have to dig through a website to find the donation page- make it readily accessible from your home page. Along the same line, have credit card readers at ALL of your events- even if you are simply manning an exhibit table. You never know when someone will be inclined to make a donation so be prepared. In other words, do everything in your power to make it as easy as possible for a donor to give the instant they decide to make a donation. Nonprofit administration can research new products, update infrastructure and link accounts as necessary to aid in this process.

Nonprofit administrative staff play an important role in the development process. If you work in administration, take note of the downstream impacts of your work. How can you improve administrative processes so that donors give again and give more? If you work in development, what do you need from administration to retain donors?