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An Ounce of Preparedness

Natural and human-made disasters have the potential to hinder or destroy your nonprofit. Floods, hurricanes, industrial accidents, to name a few, not only create unplanned expenses, they have wide-ranging and long-term effects on your nonprofit’s ability to function. There is the potential to lose employees and donors, to be closed for an extended period, severe impacts to both short and long-term fundraising activities and the loss of financial partnerships. Additionally, you may need temporary office space while you renovate or search for new office space. Time and human capital will also be required for salvage of materials and assets in the existing workspace if that is an option. While you cannot prepare for every eventuality, some forethought and planning may help you save lives and make the job of recovery less arduous. Disaster planning is cost-effective, and it will get your organization running with a minimum of disruption. Many nonprofits assist the communities in which they operate, and their services are needed more than ever after a disaster. Getting your “house” in order now will allow you to serve those around you when you are needed most.


1. Office Evacuation Plan or Emergency Evacuation Plan

The office evacuation plan, on its face, seems as exciting and useful as the safety pamphlets on airplanes. However, when fully completed, the evacuation plan provides an orderly means for exiting the premises and accounting for personnel and visitors on site. It also serves as a quick reference for significant telephone numbers such as organization and building contacts, medical facility locations and staff with emergency skills. If your organization rents space, the facility should already have a large part of this plan completed. Request a copy from building management, update it with the relevant information for your organization and distribute it to your staff. Everyone else needs to put together a plan. The Centers for Disease Control has a comprehensive template for an emergency evacuation plan. (You can download the pdf here). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration of Oregon has a more compact plan that you may download here. The main OSHA site also has an evacuation plans and procedures e-tool. There are numerous samples of emergency evacuation plans available on the Web for use as reference.


2. Inclement Weather/Emergency Closing Communication’s Plan

In upstate New York, winter weather factors strongly into everyday life from November till about April. When I was in school, nothing was more exciting than hearing the radio DJ or the television newscaster inform us that school closed. For adults, business closings are a more complicated decision. Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations in the Washington, DC area follow the federal government’s lead and close when it closes. Here in Skaneateles, some businesses and nonprofits follow the local school system and others “make a call” on a case-by-case basis. Your organization needs to have a communications protocol and an administrative policy for emergency closings. One or two days of closure may not pose a significant problem but floods or forest fires, for example, may close an organization for a month or more. Your nonprofit should have a system for conveying accurate information to personnel, partners, clients, and vendors. The ubiquitousness of texting, cell phones, and phone-accessible email makes these modalities straight-forward and cost-effective for notifying personnel and other critical players. Depending on the size of your nonprofit, there is nothing wrong with the old-fashioned “phone tree” system for passing information. It is important that someone at the organization have sufficient training and access to be able to post open/closing/operational information on the organization’s website and social media pages from a remote location. We recommend your plan include a communications channel checklist with personnel assigned to update each channel. From an administrative standpoint, management should establish policies governing issues such as employee payment and benefits management before a crisis. You may also want to add an “emergency work procedure” to the telecommuting policy of your employee handbook. By establishing these plans and procedures before a problem arises, management and personnel know what to expect and may avoid potentially costly decisions made in the heat of the moment. (Here is an Inclement Weather Policy Sample and another from the American Health Lawyers Association. There are plenty of examples online if you are looking for something particular.)


3. Data Protection

Data is probably the most valuable asset your organization possesses. Mailing lists, vendor lists, customer lists, and electronic materials are critical pieces of infrastructure for the successful operation of your nonprofit. Safeguarding these assets should be a mission-critical activity. In the 90’s, as small businesses aggressively embraced computers, backup strategies where reasonably straightforward. A floppy disk or magnetic tape was used to download data. The Executive Director or more often than not his/her assistant took the data home with them over the weekend. Early in the 2,000s, organizations saw the introduction of networked hard drives that allowed for multiple copies of data on multiple drives. Now, we have the “Cloud,” a system that backs-up data to a secure, remote location that may be accessed from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Cloud back-ups are standard now and companies such as Google (Google Drive) and Apple (iCloud) offer both free and tiered backup plans. Additionally, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and other Internet service providers offer plans for personal, nonprofit, small business and large enterprise back-ups. There are also backup companies that work specifically with nonprofit organizations. (Click here to see Cloudwards analysis of the best backup providers for nonprofits and NGOs). Data is mission critical and given the diverse number of backup offerings that are available, there is no reason that every nonprofit should not have its data regularly backed-up and protected.


4. Essential Documents

Every household and business has a set of crucial documents, whether passports, deeds, incorporation papers or operational by-laws that are vital. In many cases, especially with businesses, materials of this importance are kept in a safety deposit box offsite or fireproof safe onsite; a smart way of ensuring that those documentsmay survive a disaster. However, it is not uncommon as an organization grows or local/state/federal regulations change that materials that should be in an offsite box end-up residing in the office. Many of these documents, such as incorporation papers, 501(c)3 determination letters and the like are part of the disaster recovery process. We recommend two strategies for preparation. First, all essential documents should be scanned (nearly all printers and copiers have this functionality) and made a part of the regular backup plan. Services such as Dropbox and Google Drive are great places to store these documents so that you, your accountant and your Board Chairman can access these documents. Second, we recommend what sailors call a “ditch bag.” The ditch bag contains the most critical items that you will need to survive in a lifeboat. Similarly, your organizational ditch bag should include all the materials necessary to help your nonprofit recover. In addition to government documents such as licenses, certificates of occupancy, tax letters, etc. we also recommend it contain your insurance binder, checkbook, payroll information and a copy of your latest financial statement. The ditch bag should go with whoever will be in charge of post-disaster recovery.


5. Insurance Review

Annual insurance coverage review can be complicated, tedious and frustrating especially comparing diverse offerings from multiple carriers at multiple levels of coverage However, the time spent on this task is an investment, because the appropriate insurance coverage may be the difference between a debilitating financial burden and a recovery that gets your nonprofit back on mission and helping people. Your insurance agent should help you evaluate and understand your policy as well as suggesting additional coverages that may be relevant to your situation. If there is someone on your Board or within your advisory sphere that has insurance experience, their involvement may be beneficial.


Some fundamental questions to consider with your insurance are:


1. Do you have enough coverage for material losses?

2. Does your policy cover data and electronic losses?

3. Does your policy cover data breaches?

4. What flood or water damage coverage do I have?

5. Does my policy cover relocation or temporary premises?

6. If renting space, what does my renter’s insurance cover and what does the building’s insurance cover?


Disaster preparation is no guarantee of a successful recovery, but it significantly improves your organization’ s chances in very trying circumstances. It also provides peace of mind knowing that you have done what you can to ensure the safety of your staff and the resilience of your nonprofit.


If you have other preparation suggestions, we would love to hear them. Email us at skip@ql3strategies.comor feel free to post them in the comments section.


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