It was ten days before the gala event. I was the alumni director and fundraiser for an educational institution in Israel. I was in the U.S. managing the annual dinner, the biggest fundraising event of the year.

My phone rang. It was an alumnus.

Alumnus: Is the dinner still on?

Me: Of course! Why wouldn’t it be?

Alumnus: Didn’t you see the headline in today’s paper?

Me: No. Was working on the dinner. What happened?

Alumnus: Best if you read the article.

I went online, found the article and my jaw dropped to the floor. I immediately dialed the heads of the institution to ask if the article was true. It was. It was time to do damage control.

An email was immediately composed and sent to alumni. Dinner honorees received a phone call from the head of the institution. People were reassured that the incident outlined in the article was a one-time thing and that the institution was working to “correct the problem.”

This took place almost twenty years ago but it remains in the back of my head anytime I’m doing communications work.

Crisis Comms

I have worked as a communications and marketing director at nonprofits and for a global family foundation. Crisis comms is one of those things you hope you never have to do but you plan for it so you’re ready to deal with uncomfortable and potentially damaging situations.

What is crisis communications? Courtesy of PR Lab: It is the communication process used to respond to a threat to an organization’s reputation. The crisis plan is used when there has been a major event.

Folks, 💩 happens. And if your nonprofit isn’t prepared for it, you’re gonna take a major hit to reputation.

Sometimes you can get ahead of a story that you know will be published. Other times a journalist will call and ask for a quote. Your quote has to meet the damaging info head on and help tell your side.

Keep in mind: If your organization screwed up, here are the 5 things you need to do…

  • Own it
  • Apologize
  • Remove the post (if for example it was a social media post that completely missed the mark)
  • Explain why it happened
  • Promise to do better in the future

Your nonprofit should have a crisis comms plan already created and ready to go if need be. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it but like me, you never know when the sky will fall on your head in an instant.

Which leads me back to what I mentioned earlier: When there’s a crisis, your leadership will need to be out front speaking, explaining, apologizing, answering the tough questions.

And that may start with something short like a quote in an article.

As you’ll see below, you can absolutely screw up that quote and make things a lot worse.

Shrug Is Not An Acceptable Response

My friend Francesca shared with me this article about a member of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) complaining that CARP was partnering with a tobacco company.

This member was flabbergasted that CARP would be promoting vaping to their members. (She’s right!) She wrote an email to CARP canceling her membership and her story was picked up by CBC News.

The media outlet reached out to CARP for a reaction. CARP president Rudy Buttignol emailed the following. AND I QUOTE:

“Shrug. We have about 250,000 members.”

I’ll give you a minute to gather the pieces of your jaw from the floor.

Holy crap! That is NOT how a nonprofit president (or anyone!) should be responding to a complaint from a member and you certainly don’t want that quoted in a national media outlet.

What happened to empathy and understanding? Screw that. It’s just one member so who cares.


I want to believe that CARP’s spokesperson never saw this email response until it was quoted in the above article. Because any spokesperson would have known to kibosh that quote and replace it with something else.

Big Or Small

I don’t care if you work for a small or large organization. Fact is every single member, every single supporter, every single volunteer, every single employee matters.

I know that many nonprofit employees are underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. If that is how CARP’s president treats members, I can only imagine what he thinks of his employees.

And then we wonder why turnover is so high in the sector, individual giving and retention are down.

The “shrug” story teaches you what NOT to do when dealing with a crisis. Don’t be like Rudy.

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