Not everyone loves your nonprofit organization. Not everyone loves your non-governmental organization (NGO), civil society organization, or government agency. In fact, there is at least one individual, and maybe even a group, that would like nothing better than to hurt your organization in a very public way.
You may think no one would launch a negative campaign against your beloved organization that protects wildlife or works to educate children from low-income communities or helps women fleeing abusive relationships or encourages people to spay and neuter their pets or helps people grow their own food or brings the joy of live theater to your town. You may think:
Our organization is completely non-threatening to anyone. We’re a-political. We’re politically benign. No one would want to see our organization go away. We benefit everyone!
The truth is that every cause can become politicized, and every organization can become a political target.
I learned this while working in public relations and marketing for nonprofit professional theaters in New England back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when arts groups became the target of a very vocal, well-funded political force who felt all local, state and national government funding for theater companies, dance companies, museums and other arts organizations should be cut off. They declared such funding not only a waste of money, but also as promoting pornography and un-American values. And they had snippets of plays and photos from various exhibits that, out-of-context, seemed to prove their case to the public and the press. I felt completely unprepared as I helped book a very famous actor to debate a very famous televangelist on the subject, on a new network called CNN, and wrote talking points – I’d never been trained for such a response. I never expected to have to do anything like that for an arts organization.
Since then, in various jobs, I’ve interacted with people I later found out weren’t really representatives of the press, weren’t really independent documentary film makers, and weren’t volunteering to help with a mailing because they believed so passionately in this or that cause. Luckily, the discovery of who they really were was always made early enough such that no damage was done – usually before a first face-to-face meeting even took place. I learned to always confirm someone really did represent whatever organization they claimed to, no matter how nice they sounded on the phone, and to always vet every potential volunteer, no matter how enthusiastic and well-qualified they seemed initially – and that was before I had the Internet to help me research people. Subterfuge has been attempted at almost every organization I’ve ever been a part of, no matter what the mission.
Over the last 20 years, I have seen seemingly-benign causes come under voracious attack again and again, the latest being National Public Radio. Your organization may not be big enough to become the target of gotcha right-wing film-maker James O’Keefe, who also brought down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), a collection of community-based organizations in the USA that advocated for low- and moderate-income families by working on neighborhood safety, voter registration, health care, and affordable housing. But there could be just one person in your community with a video camera and a dream of humiliating your organization right out of existence – and given the opportunity, that person could upload a YouTube video that gets picked up by the media and sends you scrambling to explain yourself.
Whether its an animal shelter, or a volunteer association that supports a state park, or a community radio station, or a homeless shelter – no matter what kind of organization it is – you need to talk with staff regularly about handling various scenarios, including:
- how fund raisers and chief executives should respond to solicitation calls and initial meetings with potential donors, especially those who seem to represent potentially large gifts
- an email or phone call from anyone claiming to be from the press
- vetting volunteers and job applicants
- what staff and volunteers should not share on their blogs and social networking sites, no matter how private they may think such is
- what conversations should never take place via email or text-based chat
- what to do when faced with suspicious activity by a volunteer, a donor, a new staff member, someone claiming to be a film maker, etc.
- pointed questions from someone at an open house, a public event, etc.
- any questions that hint at the organization helping someone in an illegal way
Don’t assume senior staff, including your Executive Director, is prepared for these kinds of situations because they are in a leadership position. It doesn’t mean that person has to give up individual opinions, but they need to remember when they are “on the clock”, representing the organization to others, and they need to clarify when they are speaking as an individual and when their views do not represent the organization.
Also, don’t become a fortress. You aren’t looking to shut down staff blogs or prevent volunteers from taking photos during their service. You want to exude transparency and openness; but you also want all staff and volunteers to remember the powers of their words and actions.
We hear a lot about how great social media is; but remember that it can be used to spread misinformation and bad press as quickly as it spreads the good stuff the press likes to be breathless about.
One more thing: a lot of people are chastising the head of NPR for not saying anything when the fake donors were making disparaging, insulting remarks about Israel. Yet these critics are the same people who, when chastised for making disparaging, insulting remarks themselves about other various countries and cultures and people, will cry, “Stop telling me to be politically correct!” How many times has a politician, a community leader, a well-known person, said something in a private conversation to you, when you were meeting in relation to your work, that was sexist, racist, and otherwise inappropriate or inflammatory? Did you grin uncomfortably and try to move on, or did you say that the language made you uncomfortable? It’s happened to me too many times to count. Most of the time, indeed, I say something (surprise!), but a few times, I’ve changed the subject or found an excuse to walk away because I was too flabbergasted to say anything else. Before you reprimand a staff person for telling a beloved volunteer, “The language you are using right now about my co-worker is inappropriate and I cannot continue this conversation if you are going to continue using those terms to describe women,” or you reprimand a staff person for staying silent in a hidden camera video while a fake customer made racist comments, consider how well you’ve trained staff to handle these situations, and what YOU do in similar circumstances!
Also see how to handle online criticism, a resource for nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and other mission-based organizations.