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Case Studies from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations

[Image: Book cover]Thomas Wolf writes: "This is the fifth blog post drawn from my book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together. This one is called: “Dealing with Bad News: Crafting and Delivering the Message” and it provides a model for how an organization can deal with news that is potentially devastating. Once again, cooperation between executive director and board leadership is essential.

Dave had had a successful career as a fund-raiser when he was picked as executive director for a local United Way organization. His work was challenging—raising money generally is—but it was also rewarding, and the new job gave Dave the opportunity to talk with community leaders and contributors. For several years, Dave thrived and never experienced a problem that he couldn't handle with his experience, competence, and winning personality.

Then a major crisis almost derailed Dave's career. Like others who worked for United Way at the time, he had to deal with news that had the potential to turn him into a pariah. "Imagine trying to look a donor in the face when your national CEO is going to prison for fraud," he recalled. The William Aramony scandal may be in the far-distant past and largely forgotten, but for Dave, it seems like yesterday. "Having to answer angry accusations about charitable dollars being diverted to expen­sive vacations for Aramony and his mistress was not something I would want to have to go through again. But it taught me about how to deal with a crisis. And all I can say is: You had better have a committed and courageous board. When the bad news hit, our executive committee called an emergency meet­ing, and we came up with a plan of what to say, who would say it, and how to move on. Had the president of my board not stepped forward, I don't think I could have handled it, and I might not have survived in my position. Yet, because of his credibility and steadfastness, we met the challenge and even achieved our fund-raising goals that year."

Dave was fortunate his board president was a corporate CEO who knew from his day job that any major corporation has to have a plan for communicating with the public when things go awry. Good CEOs are trained to know what to do. They stay calm, have a spokesperson, and stick to a script. In Dave's orga­nization's case, the script was simple: "We are an independent organization; while we are a local affiliate of a national orga­nization, we are completely independent of any wrongdoing, and we are the same successful community resource that people have known and supported for decades." Dave's board president repeated the information over and over again. And soon Dave was authorized to take interviews and repeat it.

More recently, Dave was tested again. This time, the poten­tial crisis was anticipated and dealt with before it even material­ized. Dave had moved on and was now the executive director of another funding entity that distributed local donations to social service organizations. When Dave took over, he realized there were some problems with the distribution policies— who was getting the money that was raised and who wasn't. It wasn't that anything illegal or untoward was going on. But a few organizations were receiving the lion's share of the money and were pretty much guaranteed support because of histori­cal precedent; meanwhile, lots of newer ones could not gain access to the "club." Dave and his board wanted to address this situation and take on new initiatives, even perhaps partnering with the grantees on special projects. But because so much of the money was going to these organizations with practically no strings attached, there was no way to direct the money to major community priorities. Many of Dave's contributors were beginning to question their support.

Dave met quietly with his board. A small committee was formed to look into the matter and report back. While most agreed that the funding policies had to change, the greatest worry was the fallout that would occur when the grantees heard the bad news. "The last thing we wanted was public con­troversy as we were about to gear up our fund-raising campaign for the year, and there was definitely that possibility. While some of our donors were going to be pleased if we changed our funding policies, others associated with the major recipient organizations that would be losing money were fiercely parti­san to the old system. Crafting the bad news message was going to be important. Delivering it effectively would be crucial."

Once again, Dave was fortunate in his board. "We agreed from the outset that the news could not be leaked, and amazingly, even with a twenty-five-member board, it wasn't. We also agreed that in fairness, we needed to let the grantees know first, but within minutes afterwards, we needed to be on the phone with some of their (and our) staunchest supporters. Patricia, our president, was going to be our chief spokesperson, and I was also going to be available to answer questions. But the entire board was primed with the message so trustees wouldn't be caught flat-footed if confronted. When the news hit and the questions came, we were ready. We may have been overprepared. We were actually surprised that the fallout was so manageable."

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--© Thomas Wolf. from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, Allworth Press, 2013. For single copies, go to For information on discounts on multiple copy orders, email or call This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  (617-494-9300).