How to Deliver Bad News as a Nonprofit Board Chair

If a crisis puts the organization’s people, assets, or intended outcomes at risk, then major donors, clients, staff, or the community need to know. Here is a simple outline of how to deliver bad news as a board chair.

Five Things to Say When Delivering Bad News

What happened: Give the facts as they are available. Keep in mind that some facts matter more than others to your various audiences. Clients may be most concerned about service delivery, donors about organizational stability, staff about operations and job security.

Why it happened: If the cause of the crisis is clear, state it. If the cause is not clear, don’t speculate. Does the cause appear to come from outside your organization? The try to define the connection. If the cause appears to be from within, then don’t assign blame — it’s more important to address where processes or procedures broke down and what you’re doing to fix it. (Never identify individuals with the cause of a problem without clearance from legal counsel.)

What is being done: Report specific actions taking place to resolve the problem if you can. You may be able to say that the board and staff are developing a response. You may be able to say only that officials have been notified. Recognize your audience’s need to know that something is being done, and if not, what the obstacles are.

What the impact will be: This can be the most difficult question to answer. Sometimes the effects of a crisis are contained and unsurprising. At other times, unexpected consequences crop up. The main thing people want to know about any problem is how it will affect them. Be as specific as possible.

When it will be resolved: This can be another difficult question to answer. If information is sparse or the situation complex, there may not be a clear response. Giving a range of time can manage expectations while allowing for both delays and breakthroughs.

Don’t Fake It

You probably won’t have the answers to every question. If not, don’t bluster. It’s okay to say that you don’t know. It’s even okay to say that you know but cannot tell yet due to security, confidentiality, or other reasons. Both responses deliver more credibility that equivocation or deflection. The point of good communication with stakeholders is to enhance and protect their trust, not to avoid an unpleasant blowback of a frustrated audience.

10-Minute Board Discussion

Who is the best person on our board to deliver bad news to our stakeholders?


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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