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March 28, 2016

What's In a Name: How Nonprofits Can Protect Their Reputation (article)

When information emerged about how much the Wounded Warriors Project spent on fundraising, a ripple effect occurred with nonprofits with similar names. Organizations that also provide support to veterans faced questions about whether they, too, spent that kind of money on fundraising.

Situations that trigger the need for communication with a mass audience—such as when an organization with a name similar to yours becomes the subject of scrutiny—are impossible to predict. An outside organization could have ranked your nonprofit poorly in a report about spending donor dollars. A fire could disrupt one of your facilities. An employee could make an off-the-cuff remark to the media about one of your programs.

Public relations can come into play in a number of these and other scenarios. If your organization appears to be caught off-guard by an incident, it could have a chilling effect on public support. Having a roadmap in place can minimize damage to your reputation.

The Core Benefits

Chances are there are other nonprofits that provide services similar to yours and may even serve a similar audience. A public relations policy can help your organization distinguish itself from others and provide potential donors and beneficiaries a clear idea of what you do and what makes your organization unique. Promoting the success stories or other good works of your organization can also build up goodwill, so that when negative news surfaces, the public has a broader reference point than that one particular incident.

What a Plan Should Include

Another benefit to public relations is that it creates a plan of action. Too often organizations find themselves without a plan of attack when something happens or information comes to light that could have negative consequences. A public relations plan lays out who should be involved in addressing the matter, what steps need to be taken and what information needs to go out and to whom.

A solid public relations plan should do the following:

  1. Identify the risk for the people in the organization. Assess the severity of the threat and whether the event has been controlled. If you’re not sure of what the damage is or could be, consider enlisting a third party for help.
  2. Collect facts. Your donors and constituents will want to know what happened, how it happened and what could have been done to prevent it. Your organization should be prepared to address all of these questions. In cases similar to the Wounded Warriors Project, data that support the decisions that were made (higher marketing spend resulted in higher donations, etc.) could have proved very helpful.
  3. Share the facts with your legal counsel. Your public relations plan should include how to communicate the incident with legal counsel. Also included in this message should be confidentiality restrictions, as many public relations incidents may have legal ramifications.
  4. Assess who needs to know what. Consider how your organization is going to address the incident internally, with the media, donors, the public and your organization’s Board of Directors; all will need customized messages.
  5. Designate a spokesperson. Sometimes this will be an external party, but in most instances, you should have a C-suite professional who can answer questions. The questions will be difficult, so be sure that your spokesperson has all the facts at his or her disposal, as well as a plan for how to address key concerns.
  6. Consider the channel for communication. There are a number of ways to communicate with your audiences, be they email, letters, press releases, press conferences or social media. With major donors, you may want to overnight a letter the night before you know a story is going to break.
  7. Have a plan for readdressing the problems. To get on top of a public relations issue, you need to continually address the core concerns and how your organization is improving upon its policies.

Think Ahead

The best time to think about how to address the public is before there’s an event that requires public relations management. While you can’t predict what will happen, you can be prepared for the scenarios that may come about, from the internal to the external.

For more information about how you can be prepared for public relations challenges, please refer to the contact information below.

Guest Contributor Greg Matusky is the president and founder of the public relations firm, Gregory FCA. He can be reached by visiting http://www.gregoryfca.com/contact-us/.

Copyright © 2016, CBIZ, Inc. All rights reserved. Contents of this publication may not be reproduced without the express written consent of CBIZ. This publication is distributed with the understanding that CBIZ is not rendering legal, accounting or other professional advice. The reader is advised to contact a tax professional prior to taking any action based upon this information. CBIZ assumes no liability whatsoever in connection with the use of this information and assumes no obligation to inform the reader of any changes in tax laws or other factors that could affect the information contained herein.

CBIZ MHM is the brand name for CBIZ MHM, LLC, a national professional services company providing tax, financial advisory and consulting services to individuals, tax-exempt organizations and a wide range of publicly-traded and privately-held companies. CBIZ MHM, LLC is a fully owned subsidiary of CBIZ, Inc. (NYSE: CBZ).

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