Contingency Planning Basics

How volunteers can help virtual events succeed– Little Ideas for Big Impact

Not to be overly cavalier, but I am willing to guess no one had “Global Virus & Civic Unrest” as the title for any sort of contingency plan if your organization even has a contingency plan. Or a Disaster Recovery Plan. Or any Scenario Planning.

And that’s OK, you shouldn’t have. These types of plans are not meant to address specific instances. They are meant to demonstrate how your organization can and should respond in the case of some sort of outside event or circumstance. They are, at their best, a guide and flowchart for decision making, so that amid a potential crisis, your team can provide calm, considered leadership.

But what are the differences in these plans, and how do you approach making and implementing them? We have a few quick ideas that will help you set the course for whatever might be ahead.

Know Your Plans

First a few definitions.

  • Scenario Plans – These are typically “Crystal Ball” plans looking at how certain circumstances might affect not just your organization, but your community, region, or the world as a whole. There are also usually multiple ones covering different sets of circumstances.
  • Disaster Recovery Plans – These are more “Brass Tacks” plans, with specific actions to be taken in cases of some occurrences, a data breach, a natural disaster, or other natural or man-made disasters.
  • Contingency Plans – Combining elements of both, Contingency plans are typically broader than Disaster Plans and incorporate some of the future-casting of Scenario Plans.

Planning for Your Plan(s)

So how do you begin to develop these plans? First off, look to the past. See how your organization, and others, have reacted to situations in the past, and see what lessons can be learned from them. Next, look at your current available time and resources, to see how to deep a dive you want to take into planning. No use in planning for the future by ignoring the present, but balance that with realizing that these plans may ensure your organization success in the future.

This type of planning can also be the perfect opportunity to “test out” a nonprofit consultant. It gives you a project-based task that lets you see how they operate, lets them learn about your organization, and results in a plan that will benefit your organization as a whole – all without  jumping right into a long contract or large expense.

What to Ask In (and of) Your Plan

One of the best resources for starting a plan is a book written in response to a past crisis. Fundraising When Money is Tight by Mal Warwick was originally published in 2009 in response to the Great Recession, but the insights into planning are timeless. One of the biggest takeaways is a series of questions the author says you should ask yourself when starting a plan. They are:

  • What is the fundamental question? What are you planning for? What keeps you up at night? Keep your focus on that fundamental issue to keep everyone on task and track.
  • Figure out what you don’t know. Create a list of factors that you’ll need to take into account to complete your plan. Some will be known numbers (budget, rents outreach, staff levels, etc.) and some may be unknown, or factors outside your organization. These are referred to as Strategic Uncertainties and should be the focus of your research.
  • Gather the necessary information. Now that you know what you want to plan for, and the information you need to develop that plan, go out and get it. This may be where a consultant, economist or other outside person may be especially useful. Just don’t get too bogged down in research and data. Keep the focus on the plan goal and the important strategic uncertainties.
  • Look at broad trends. Look at the driving forces in todays world, and in past similar circumstances. Social dynamics, economic forces, political issues, and technology developments affect all of us, and will affect your plan.
  • Write stories. Take everything you’ve thought about and researched up till now and write out stories that cover best to worst case scenarios. Spitball and outline several, then narrow down to 3 to 4 scenarios. Further refine and even merge those, then start to look at the impact each might have on your organization.
  • Test your choices. Now that you have a series of scenarios, and list of possible impacts on your organization, see how the big question you started with might be answered in those scenarios. See how your choices might play out in each scenario, and what you can do to come up with guidelines for dealing with them. Those guidelines will become the basis of the plan you put together.

As I said at the start of this article; no one could have seen how current events would come together in the way they have, and non-profits have been a crucial part in the success we have seen in terms of addressing food scarcity, PPE production and distribution and more while being a center in their communities for resources, accurate information and leadership. That is a result of your people, mission and passion, and the creation of effective plans will make sure your organization is prepared for the next time no one could have foreseen.