Building Board Crisis Management (and Prevention) Capacity

By Julia Riseman, Mentor, JCamp 180

At some point in your camp's history, you will face a big and ugly crisis.

It will test you like never before. The scrutiny from the outside will come suddenly and forcefully. Are you ready for a thoughtful, mission-driven, informed board response?

Every year at JCamp 180 we witness a wide range of Jewish Camp crises that rock organizations to the very core, and not all of them hit the headlines. We've observed the many ways that successful camps weather the crisis storm and come out stronger, and we've collectively cringed at while watching well-intentioned, but sloppy and short-sighted responses lead to deeply damaged reputations.

Our conclusion: a proactive board crisis management plan is of the up-most importance. 

Here are 3 common mistakes we see among Jewish Camp Boards:

  1. Too Much Trust
    A discussion of an organization's crisis response should go well beyond your Camp Director reporting to the Board that extensive crisis planning is already in place - as required by the ACA - and incorporated into staff training.  Just trusting staff leadership that everything will be ok puts your organization at risk.
  2. Lack of Planning
    Ironically, as common as crises seem to be these days, planning for them is not. Proper Board-level planning includes, but isn't limited to:
      • clarity about lines of authority during a crisis to alleviate confusion,
      • the Board President and Camp Director agreeing in advance on active communication during the summer and throughout the year,
      • a Board review of the organization's crisis and emergency plan, as well as communication policies/plan, and
      • Board-wide training on the balance between asking tough questions internally, and appropriate communication externally.
  3. Clueless About Board-Level Response
    Staff leadership reports to the Board, of course, but in a crisis the Board can be "outranked" by stakeholders, regulators, and legal authorities. A situation that calls for outside involvement likely warrants Board response. Such organizational crises might include issues around reputation, major litigation, a death, regulatory sanctions, ongoing viability, or leadership scandal. Be sure that the Board has a pre-defined method for employing legal counsel, and agreed upon mechanisms for discussing highly confidential information, such as the proper use of Executive Session.

Since crisis planning is your responsibility, here are some tips that may help you get started:

  1. Know the buck will really stop with you.
  2. Proactivity matters. Boards need to anticipate and get out in front of problems, or risk losing credibility.
  3. Re-balance levels of intrusiveness vs. hands-off governance. The former governance mantra, "noses in, hands off," doesn't work in a crisis. Today, given the speed of communication, Boards can't wait to be told what matters, and staff can't wait to reply until they have more time to think. 
  4. Adjust your expectation of timing: Immediacy must rule. Today's news travels within seconds, so boards must respond accordingly. If an issue is "going viral," there must be an online response from camp. Plan in advance who must be involved in online communications during a crisis.
  5. Don't let lawyers control everything. Involve counsel, but recognize the responsibility for managing public opinion is shared among other experts.
  6. Make sure your Board is high functioning before a crisis occurs. Unresolved conflict and ineffectiveness make crisis management worse, so optimize Board performance now (and always).
  7. Finally, the Board can provide a firm moral center to its organization in crisis. An effective Board that is clear about the core values of your Jewish Camp and cares about the community can help an organization emerge from a crisis even stronger and even more beloved.