Monday, December 8, 2014

Flourishing in the Face of Flops and Failures

Non-Profit Roundtable
Oakland Chamber Blog
October 21, 2014

Flourishing in the Face of Flops and Failures

To commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake and the founding of CARD-Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (, at its October meeting, the Oakland Chamber NonProfit Roundtable looked at emergencies (both internal and external), ways to address them, how to establish measures to prevent them from happening again, or prepare to respond better to a similar situation.

Guest speaker Isaac Kos-Read of the Kos Read Group and Public Affairs Consultant for the Oakland Chamber ( spoke first about Crisis Communications. Formerly Director of External Affairs for the Port of Oakland, Kos-Read first shared the basics of his company:
       3 Services: Public Affairs, Strategic Communications and Public Relations
       4 Practice Areas: Sustainability, Jobs, Culture, and International Partnership
       6 Values: Principled, Pragmatic, Progressive, Passionate, Positive, and People-Oriented

When it comes to crisis communications, Kos-Read has experience. He was at the Port of Oakland during two recent crises: 1) the Occupy movement’s shut down of the Port in 2011; and 2) and an expenditure crisis that put the Port in the national spotlight.

His first reminder was that in all communications, social media is now pervasive in our lives, and it is essential to think about how we use this in crisis management. Our culture is also in a period of heightened expectations of transparency, and with social media and the Internet, all of us have greater access to a broader scope of information. The example he gave for the latter is that any donation made by an individual to a candidate in the 2014 election is public within two weeks.

Kos-Read also noted that we are experiencing a period of a compressed, 24-hour news cycle (features, urgent messages, and so on are here and then gone a short time later). This makes superficial perception the focus of information-sharing. Other points he shared about crisis communications were that a visual presentation is essential and messages must be repeated regularly. He also noted that there are internal crises (such as employee misconduct, an IT security breach or system failure, or workforce unrest) and external crises (such as an earthquake, violence or infection). In all crises, he noted that having strong partners is very helpful.

To be prepared for crises (and every organization or company has them at some point) is to plan and practice. For planning, Kos-Read recommended: 1) convening a cross-functional team (legal, board, executive, operations, communications, etc.); 2) thinking hard about potential scenarios and playing them out; and 3) writing your plans down (who is responsible for what, when, to whom, how often). Then, even though some crises cannot be prepared for with drills (like an earthquake), it is good to create and follow scenarios of other crises. The overall message is to be as prepared as you can be.

Two quick notes:
  1. Kos-Read stated that even with social media and the Internet, television is still incredibly influential. For example, most individuals get their voter information from television.
  2. He also recommended reading and taking to heart Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Following Kos-Read, Roundtable Co-chair Jerry Metzker (Development & Grants Manager for Family Connections – shared dos and don’ts of fundraising failures. Some of these are as follows:

·       Don’t badger funders who change their guidelines, decline funding after a previous award (or several years of awards) or who seem to support your cause but are not interested in supporting you. State your sadness/disappointment, and learn how and when to “let go” and move on. You can lose precious time and energy chasing after funding that you most likely are not going to get and also alienate influential friends at the same time.

·       Do remember that funders are in the business of sharing their money. This is what they do. They are not out to hurt or maim you or your organization. Treat your relationship like a partnership.

·       Don’t ignore deadlines, phone or email messages; be prompt.

·       Do send a report or update on your activities in a timely manner, even if the funder doesn’t specifically request one.

·       Don’t press your donors or prospects with deadline demands, no matter how desperate your cash flow needs may be. Funders (foundations, corporations, individuals and even government agencies) go through many transitions and have needs of their own. Be patient, give them time, keep them updated and be friendly. Regularly offer opportunity.

·       Do share special accomplishments or achievements, even if outside the standard reporting or updating schedule. Social media is great way to communicate with individuals. Email newsletters are an excellent way to remain in contact with all of your constituents.

·       Don’t obfuscate when something is not going as hoped or planned. Be up front with your challenges, transitions and crises, and your plans to address them. Do this in a timely manner, not when the report is due. This requires some forward thinking—i.e. are we going to achieve our outcomes? If not, why or did we meet some other outcome that we hadn’t anticipated? Share this with the funder. Again, funders do want your organization to succeed.

·       Do listen. Donors and funders tell you what they are interested in, what they want to do, how they want to support you and when is the best time and way to speak with them.

·       Do be appreciative. Send thank you letters. Make brief thank you calls. Don’t give any indication of disappointment in amount or level of participation or even timing. Don’t attach any other message to the acknowledgment, just thank the donor.

Roundtable Co-Chair and Executive Director of CARD-Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters ( Âna-Marie Jones led the group through a highly recommended “ best practice” for any team that has responded to an emergency situation. The practice fosters transparency, promotes open dialogue, allows for those involved to let go of upsets from the incident, and allows every member of the team to learn from the event and to extract valuable lessons. The process she shared is called the “Plus + / Delta ∆” Debrief. The practice is great for any agency committed to continuous improvement. After all, who wants to keep making the same mistakes over and over again?

The practice begins after the emergency has been addressed. Writing on a large piece of paper or dry erase board, the team makes a list of the “Plusses” —what was done during the emergency that was in alignment with the goals, plans and commitments of the organization. Only after running out of plusses should the team move on. Then the team begins to list separately the “Deltas” — those actions and responses that were out of alignment with the organization’s goals, plans and commitments.

The basic example Jones shared was that the coffee pot was left on overnight. While it didn’t start a full-on fire, it did burn and ruin the pot. Attendees discussed the plusses (very limited damage; fire extinguisher was available, charged, and people knew how to use it) and the deltas (end-of-day procedures need review, new coffee pot with automatic off switch should be purchased, everyone (not just coffee drinkers) should keep eyes, ears, and noses open for hazards).

An important aspect of this practice is to absolutely avoid the binary framing of good/bad or positive/negative or success/failure. It’s critical to avoid the familiar trap of “naming, shaming, and blaming” individuals whose actions may be seen as having “caused” a problem or breakdown. The goal is to stay laser-focused on what can be learned, what can be put in place to make your team stronger and what will produce a better outcome in the future. Jones also noted that the order of the following steps in the Plus/Delta debrief session is important:
  • Always do all the Plus comments before any of the Delta comments
  • Team Leader/Person Responsible for the event should go first in both sections
  • Then other team members speak
  • Then audience members or observers share their experiences and reflections
  • Finally, if there is one, a facilitator/trainer shares her observations

The final step is to turn the lists into action items -- thank you notes to people who helped, apologies to anyone negatively impacted, trainings scheduled, emergency procedures updated, fire extinguisher replenished, new coffee pot purchased, etc.

The “Plus/Delta” Debrief is not only useful post-emergency, but it’s helpful as part of any group activity – a fundraiser, annual meeting, staff trainings, etc. Jones emphasized that if this practice is done properly and consistently, everyone learns (whether or not they were actually involved in the event) and everyone can leave feeling more empowered and better trained—even after a serious breakdown in procedures. For a copy of the worksheet of The “Plus/Delta” Debrief, or to learn more about conducting a Plus/Delta debrief session at your agency, contact Âna-Marie Jones, or 510.451.3140.

Special thanks to CARD for providing the treats and Ben Delaney ( for donating a copy of his book Nonprofit Marketing Handbook as a door prize.

Co-Chair Âna-Marie Jones, Executive Director of CARD (
Co-Chair Jerry Metzker, Development & Grants Manager of Family Connections (

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