Emergency Management for Nonprofits

While it’s hard to look away from a disaster, it can be even harder to plan for one. It’s simply human nature that we would rather deal with today’s problems today and leave tomorrow’s disasters for…how’s next week? This is the quintessential example of urgent displacing important. As a full time emergency manager, many of the folks I run into are fascinated by my job, wanting to hear all about the latest threat—be it Ebola, earthquakes, or Zika. But when the conversation comes around to it, they are much less engaged about preparing for themselves or their company. Where does that leave the Executive Director, the board or, most importantly, the mission of your agency?

I’m on the board for a medium sized nonprofit ($1.8 million in revenue) in Portland, Oregon. We provide onsite services to children, have a small number of permanent (and outstanding) staff, rent our building, and exist right in the footprint of the Cascadia earthquake zone. Revisiting our disaster resilience work, we’re finding that it seems to fall into several areas which I suspect are typical for the nonprofit world: preparing for bad things, reducing exposure, and defining your post-disaster business model. I hope these will be useful starting points for your own discussions.

Preparing for Bad Things

Earthquake, active shooters, building fires. When we bring up disasters like these, many more jump to mind. If we do anything at all, we start talking about food caches in the office, phone trees, and security plans. Those are all important, pricey, and a little daunting. But they are also a good place to start! Take 10 minutes at your next staff meeting and toss out the scenario that makes you the most nervous. Let’s say it’s the idea of an earthquake that has you collectively shaking in your shoes. Ask a few questions, such as:

  • Does everybody know we should drop, cover and hold on?
  • What happens afterwards? How’s our building? (If it is like many in the Northwest, that might not be a comforting answer. See below.) Are we going to stay here? If not, where are we going?
  • Do we have food and water, do we need it, how much?
  • Who’s going to stay here, and who needs to go check on family, loved ones, or pets? How are you going to get there? Do they know you’re coming?
  • What immediate mission-related issues do we need to address with the staff who stay (e.g., onsite clients, sudden additional needs)? What happens to all that if the quake happens after hours? How can we do our normal jobs plus support all the other new needs?

From a few conversations like that, you can begin to formulate response plans and tools that get everyone on the same page when disaster strikes. In fact, I find a good practice is to have a one-page (at most 2-page front and back) “play book” for specific scenarios or functions: a good starting point is basic things such as what to do when it snows, calling in staff after hours, or a basic plan for evacuating the office. A lot of good preparedness is the little things: a flashlight, a box of energy bars in the break room, current evacuation plans, a list of emergency contacts for your utility company, your IT person, or your key donors. Each seems minor by themselves, but over time add up into an emergency operations plan.

Reducing Your Exposure

Once you start talking about emergencies you’re going to start identifying vulnerabilities that aren’t easily addressed this might range from “our building isn’t seismically sound” to “if Jane doesn’t come in nobody can get paid”. Chances are these vulnerabilities didn’t develop overnight. You moved into the really pretty old brick building years ago. Joe used to help Jane with payroll, but moved on to a new position a few years ago. Likewise, many issues can’t be solved overnight either. It takes time to figure out sustainable, affordable, seismically safe real estate. Cross training staff or developing remote work practices can be more complicated than it seems at first. That’s OK.

The key first step is to identify these bigger-than-a-bread-box items and begin to weave them into your strategic planning. Just like becoming more sustainable, the most effective strategy to becoming more resilient is to take things step by step. What can be done immediately, what can we do this year, over the next five years, or as long term stretch goals? On my own board, we’re wrestling with seismic safety for a building that we don’t own. The first step was a somewhat uncomfortable discussion with the landlord along with some compromise in lease negotiations. As you might know, it’s already tough to be a tenant in Portland, but we’ve wiggled some provisions in to continue to build towards resilience.

Defining Your Post-Disaster Business Model

We’re all in our roles to benefit the community. We have clients we serve or vital community systems we support and nurture. In many cases the people who benefit most from your work are the very ones most vulnerable to a community disaster. It is often overlooked in reports on earthquakes and hurricanes that, for many people, the biggest impact is that the services they use day-to-day are disrupted.

In the nonprofit sector, the most crucial disaster preparedness work you can do is to predict what services you will need to provide a week after, a month after, a year after the bad day. Communities don’t get back to normal after a large event—they get to a new normal. The services and functions that were in place prior to an emergency may not be what is needed after. You may well need to form new alliances and pursue new opportunities. Looking at the impact that disasters in other areas had on your colleagues can give you a hint of how to prepare, as can focused discussions with your local clients and partners. We all know our favorite post-disaster relief agencies, but we don’t often think of our own organizations as playing a post-disaster support role.

Bottom Line

Thinking about disasters is more than just worrying or borrowing trouble—it’s the first step to recovering from them. Beyond getting your agency prepared for that terrible “someday,” they can help you with today and tomorrow as well. Jane is out sick on pay day? You have a plan. Your grant report is due at five and the power is out, but you stashed your data on the cloud. These preparations that start small add up to a resiliency that can carry you and your community through small turbulences, as well as “the Big One,” whatever that may turn out to be.

Michael Kubler
Michael Kubler is the Director of Emergency Management for Providence Health Services in Portland, Oregon. He returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2007 after 9 years in the Navy where he practiced public health and emergency preparedness from Iceland to Diego Garcia. In addition to his work with Providence Michael also volunteers for number of organizations and committees usually focused on emergency management and education issues.