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Heeding the silent alarm – Plan for disaster before it strikes

September 17, 2013


It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Sandy hit New York City last October. When it did, the Commonwealth Fund, a health care–focused foundation, fared reasonably well. Because of the difficulties and dangers associated with transportation around the city, the Fund closed its physical offices for four days. But its online remote server enabled employees who still had power and an Internet connection to communicate with one another and work from home.

After the storm, the foundation decided there was room for improvement and that it could better protect its data if it moved more systems to “the cloud.” Nevertheless, its existing disaster/continuity plan performed well under pressure, protecting employees, preserving data and facilitating a rapid recovery.

Would your not-for-profit fare as well if it were hit by a natural or manmade disaster?

Between needing and meeting

A 2007 study conducted by University of Dallas researchers found that, while 96% of surveyed not-for-profit leaders recognized the need for continuity planning and disaster recovery training, only 60% actually had a plan in place. This discrepancy is understandable. Most not-for-profits are intensely focused on present needs — not the possibility that disaster will strike sometime in the distant future. And the economic slowdown has stripped many organizations’ staffs to the bare bones, making it harder for them to find time to create or update their continuity plans.

It’s important, however, not to turn a molehill into a mountain. You likely already have many of the necessary processes in place — such as evacuating your office or backing up data. A continuity plan simply organizes and documents those processes so that, in the event of an emergency, you can protect your people and minimize interruptions in service.

Although all organizations — not-for-profit and for-profit alike — need a continuity plan, such plans are critical for many not-for-profits. Providers of basic human services (such as medical care and food) and disaster-related charities are the first to respond in emergencies and must be ready to support victims and their families. These services require that an organization mobilize quickly, perhaps without full staffing, working computers or phones.

What are the risks?

No organization can anticipate or eliminate all possible risks, but you can limit the damage of potential risks specific to your organization. These vary by organization type, location and technology. So, the first step in creating a continuity plan is to identify the threats you face when it comes to its people, processes and technology.

Also assess what the damages would be if your operations were interrupted. For example, if you had an office fire, what would be the possible outcomes regarding personal injury, property damage and financial losses?

Designate a lead person to oversee the creation and implementation of your continuity plan. Then assemble teams to handle different duties, such as a communications team responsible for contacting and updating staff, volunteers and other stakeholders — possibly on your organization’s website or Facebook page. Other teams might focus on IT issues, decide how to preserve and retrieve critical inventory or devise evacuation procedures.

It only takes one

Given the number and scale of natural and manmade disasters in recent years, it would be foolhardy to continue operating without a continuity plan. One incident — even something as seemingly mundane as an extended power outage or virulent flu season — could prevent your organization from carrying out its mission. A single disaster might even put you out of commission permanently.
For more information, please contact Brian Todd at [email protected].

All content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Matters discussed in this article are subject to change. For up-to-date information on this subject please contact a Clark Schaefer Hackett professional. Clark Schaefer Hackett will not be held responsible for any claim, loss, damage or inconvenience caused as a result of any information within these pages or any information accessed through this site.


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