Unexpected events are a part of philanthropy, in much the same way surprise snows can be a part of spring. Depending on where you are and what you're doing (and whether or not school is cancelled), that snow can be a blessing or a curse.
For funders, unexpected events run the gamut from creating inconvenience to rocking entire worlds. Key staff may leave your team at a critical time. External forces (such as presidential elections, say) can make dramatic shifts in the environment in which your focus your giving. Or, as was the case with one foundation I've worked with, government leaders who were valuable partners for your initiative may end up in jail for corruption (completely unrelated to your efforts, of course!). The list of negative impacts of unexpected events goes on and on.
But the unexpected can also deliver important opportunities, such as a new funding stream, an event that focuses attention on a cause you care about, a community leader who asks just the right question at the right time, or a new political climate that is receptive to the kind of change you and your grantees seek.
In either case, positive or negative, there are five things you can do to be prepared to weather - or capitalize on - the unexpected.
1. Cultivate a broad network of relationships. The more people you know, the more resources and allies you can call into play. Did a key staff member leave? Open your contacts list to quickly assemble a list of potential new candidates. Did political allies on one side of the aisle leave you in the lurch? Reach out to your friends on the other side.
2. Become a true learning organization. It's true that history repeats itself, but not true that we are good at learning from it. Documenting the work you've done, how and why you've chosen your path, and what you've learned along the way can help you respond more easily and effectively to the unexpected. Use your learning to avoid reinventing the wheel and to bring yourself up to speed quickly to respond to unanticipated events.
3. Explore contingency plans. You might be surprised at how many unexpected events you can predict if you take the time to think through scenarios. Many corporate organizations create a "Red Team" to do just that. (Read more about the red team here.) By thinking through everything that could go wrong, you not only can create contingency plans for response, but also inform and strengthen your initial plans as well.
4. Authorize a rapid response system. I'm not talking about an EMS-type situation here, but rather the ability to respond rapidly to change - particularly unexpected opportunities. For example, consider a foundation in which all community partnerships must be approved by a board of directors that only meets quarterly. What if a unique partnership opportunity arose just days after one of those meetings concluded, and the decision needed to be made by the end of the current month? If the foundation has an alternative policy for rapid response, it need not miss out on an important opportunity.
5. Create a crisis communication plan. Responding to the unexpected can mean doing so publicly - especially if your CFO runs off to Tahiti with your endowment or other staff or partners are caught behaving badly. Creating a crisis communications plan that designates a trained spokesperson and key messages that should be used can relieve stress in the moment and reinforce your brand over the long term.
Unexpected events are a part of life - some might even say they're what keeps our work interesting. How we prepare for them can make a huge difference in their ultimate outcomes for our grantmaking and our communities. By following the five simple steps above, you'll be ready to handle just about anything life throws your way.