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Every Organization Needs an Emergency Preparedness Plan. Here’s Ours.

April 6, 2020

There’s no such thing as a good time for an emergency or interruption to ‘business as usual’ — but having a solid contingency plan in place makes all the difference.

The COVID-19 pandemic is just one example of how events beyond our control can impact organizational functions both quickly and significantly. This experience has underscored the importance of preparing for unexpected disruptions — both in terms of keeping the organization running smoothly, and protecting the health and wellness of employees and stakeholders.

At Elevate, we’ve drawn on the experience of our executive team to form an internal Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP) Team, and keep things running smoothly in spite of the constant change we’re all experiencing. Specifically, our President & COO has been part of COOP teams in the Senate, the White House, and is now leading the COOP Team at Elevate.

We know this is a stressful time to try and figure out how to implement something similar at your organization, on top of everything else on your plate. But we’re here to help! Below, we’ve outlined our framework for forming and running a COOP Team, what to focus on as a group, and how to communicate the necessary updates with your broader team. 


The first step in creating an emergency preparedness plan is to assemble your COOP Team.

We recommend auditing the high-level core functions of your organization, and making sure your COOP team has at least one member that represents each of those departments. We suggest keeping your team small, and including decision-makers for each of the core functions. The COOP team will bring questions and tasks back to their department to keep things moving quickly.

At Elevate, the goal of our COOP Team is to foresee and address issues that may arise with our clients, client teams, finances, and human resources in the event of an epidemic or emergency — and our team includes key staff members whose work is closely tied to each of those core areas.

Once your team is assembled, there are three key areas you’ll want to think about:

  1. Continuity of operations
  2. Emergency preparedness
  3. Communication to stakeholders – internal and external

 

Let’s break each of these down further

Continuity of Operations

It’s important to develop succession and logistical plans that spell out how your organization will continue to operate in case of absences in leadership, and/or interruptions in critical business functions.

For each core area of your organization (including executive leadership), select a key staff member to create a chart of all key functions. Then, identify an order of succession with at least two-to-four staff members who can take over those responsibilities in the event of an unplanned absence, and be sure your successors are all cross-trained well before they need to step in.

This is known as redundancy, and it’s something you can plan for at all times — not just in the context of emergency preparation. We recommend taking these same measures when you’re designing job descriptions, and clarifying roles and responsibilities, to ensure all core functions have redundancy and everyone involved has been properly trained.

The final step here is to create (or confirm the existence and accuracy of) key documentation that spells out how to perform each responsibility. This could include written instructions, tutorials, and/or sharing any necessary logins and passwords in a secure way. Make sure this documentation is saved in a clear and accessible location! Cross-train your successors well before they need to use it in a real-time setting. Keep in mind that your redundancy plans may include key vendors and/or points of contact, and they may need to be looped in and cross-trained as well.

Emergency Preparedness

In this section, we’re dealing specifically with how your organization will respond to an emergency or unplanned disruption, and how you’ll adapt or change those plans as the emergency situation evolves.

First, you’ll want to go back to that list of core departments or business functions. For Elevate, that includes our clients, internal client teams, office status, operations, finances, human resources, and communication. Within each of those categories, we recommend identifying the different possible phases. Using Office Status as an example: Phase 1 might be ‘the office is open as usual, with limited restrictions’, Phase 2 might be ‘the office is closed to everyone except staff’, and so on. This will be specific to your organization. The final phase should be Back to Business as Usual. The more things change during the disruption, the more important it is to prepare for this phase.

Then, for each phase, you’ll want to make three lists: we’re calling them prompts, considerations, and preparations.

  • We use the term prompt to mean any information that would possibly prompt us to move into this phase. Make sure your team agrees on the reliable sources of information that you will all use to make informed, fact-based decisions. (Using the example of Office Status, prompts might include school closures, government directives or closures, etc.)
  • We use the term consideration to mean any valuable information that needs to be considered when moving to this phase — which often includes things that are not immediately obvious. (Using the example of Office Status, considerations might include how an office closure would impact staff, how to retrieve the mail if the office is closed, etc.)
  • We use the term preparation to mean any steps that should be taken before or during the communication and implementation of this new phase. (Using the example of Office Status, preparations might include communicating the change to staff and stakeholders, taking any necessary measures for building security, cleaning out the office refrigerator, etc.)

 

Once this information is all compiled in one document, you can use this document to guide the structure of your COOP Team meetings. Our team is currently meeting daily to share updates, discuss any new prompts/considerations/preparations for each stage, and develop communication plans as needed.

Developing a regular meeting cadence is especially important at the beginning of a crisis. Ideally, you’ll carve out 30-60 minutes to meet at the same time every day. As the crisis stabilizes, you may be able to meet less often and/or for a shorter period of time — but it’s still important to have a recurring and designated time for your team to meet and share updates.

Communication

As we’re seeing with COVID-19, the situation is evolving and there we’re seeing significant updates by the day — if not by the hour! In times like this, communicating on a regular basis can ease the uncertainty and anxiety of the situation.

As such, Elevate’s COOP Team has committed to sending daily emails to our full staff with information about any changes or updates regarding our phases, policies, and/or best practices based on evolving circumstances, etc. We use the same subject line format for each daily email, so staff know that it is from the COOP Team. We also save all of the emails on our Intranet for easy recall.

We encourage you to adapt this to meet your organization’s needs and culture! For example, the belief that we’re all in this together is central to our company values — so to maintain a feeling of connection, we also throw in a mix of personal videos along with our updates.

In addition to regular internal communication, you may also need to develop separate communication plans for external stakeholders. Is your organization adjusting your hours and/or operating procedures in ways that could impact your broader community? Do you have any timely new services or resources to share, or new initiatives to announce? Does your organization send a newsletter or other means of standard external communication where you could include some of these updates? These are all good questions to weigh as you put together an external communications plan.

Use this as a guiding framework, and be sure to make any necessary additions or modifications to meet your organization’s needs. We hope this provides you with a helpful jumping-off point to ensure your nonprofit’s long term health and sustainability.


Written by Katy Kale and Michelle LaCroix

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