4 Things Our Whitewater Guide Knew About Risk Management

risk management, contingency planning

We hit the bottom of a flume and leapt into the air. The raft went left and a woman at the front went right— into the Class III rapids. She surfaced, legs out in front, and let the life vest carry her along, pushing off rocks with her paddle and arms. Our guide shouted instructions and we manuevered the raft close enough to throw her a rope. As we pulled alongside, two of our crew grasped her life vest and pull her aboard. Cold and little shaken, she took up her paddle and dug in. She was safe again, partly because she had known what to do and so had we. But the reason we knew what to do was that our whitewater guide knew about risk management.

Several years ago my daughter and I were invited to go on a 3-hour rafting trip down the Ocoee River. After the outfitter dropped off our group with rafts, gear, and guides, we assembled at the river’s edge. The water was roiling from a dam release upstream, and we were eager to get going! Our guide pulled us aside. “We’re going to have fun today,” he said, “but it’s dangerous. The river is much higher than usual, so the conditions are more challenging. It’s easy get hurt and, yes, you can die doing this. Listen to what I tell you now, and you’ll be better prepared if we get into trouble out there.”

He had our attention.

The guide gave us instructions about where to sit, how to work together in rough water, and a sobering thought about falling in. “No one gets in my raft without a helmet and life vest on. The vest will help keep you afloat. Let it. Stay on top of the water, legs forward. Whatever you do, never try to stand up. The bottom of this river is a rock pile. In current this strong, you can wedge a foot under a rock and the river will pull you under and hold you there. You’ll drown before I can get to you.” Got it.

Other than the one “swimmer,” the rest of the run was perfect. When we reached the end, we beached the raft and helped each other ashore. The guide called us together one more time. “You did well today! We had a little extra excitement, but you did everything right. Good job. Thanks.” Wet and tired, we all looked to the woman who had fallen in. She was bruised, bleeding a little, and . . . beaming.

Managing Risk in Whitewater (and your Nonprofit Organization)

There were at least 4 things our whitewater guide knew about risk management:

Identify the dangers: We knew to expect crushing rapids, rock snags beneath the surface, and the chance of going overboard. Naming the threats we might encounter helped prepare us by reducing the power of surprise.

Talk about the contingency plan: We had a clear idea about what could go wrong, how we’d try to avoid it, and what to do if it happened anyway.

Monitor compliance: The guide made sure that everyone in that raft wore protective gear and followed his instructions.

Encourage good performance: During the run, he shouted encouragement — and prompted us to encourage each other. At the end of the run, he recognized our accomplishment and thanked us.


10-Minute Board Discussion:

How does our board prepare for potential dangers?


Creative Commons image by Flickr user chrishusein

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