Protecting NGO Brand Trust in Turbulent Times

A Simple Plan for NGOs to Navigate the #Oxfam Crisis

Toronto, February 23, 2018.   While not a natural disaster, there is a reputational catastrophe affecting all international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in Canada and around the world. This hurricane was first known as the Oxfam scandal. New information is coming out seemingly every day implicating more and more highly respected global aid and humanitarian agencies.

And if you think that because your organization is not Oxfam, or that because you are not directly responsible for expatriate recruitment, the reputational threat is low. You are wrong. This is a sector-wide threat. The organizations that move quickly and strategically are those with the greatest prospects of brand resilience.

You know the old saying about one unhappy customer telling 5 friends, and those 5 friends tell 5 more….Get in front of this crisis. Don’t let someone else frame this story for your organization.

INGOs have spent decades building public trust that today risks being shattered. These are the agencies relied on to rescue children in war zones, who ensure people have food, shelter and medical attention after the earthquake shatters their homes and their economies…. How could this have happened?

The ‘why’ goes back a long way and is rooted in a profound leadership gap in understanding and investing in strategic HR. For many reasons, HR in these agencies has lacked investment in senior leadership talent. Its viewed as a ‘recruiting function’ to put ‘bums in seats’ (pun intended).

However, we’ll look at the ‘why’ another day. Today we address the most urgent steps to protect brands and reputations in the face of a potential collapse of public trust and the resulting funding calamity. We focus below on a few simple first steps for Canadian INGOs to manage through this crisis – protecting a brand and reputation.

First Steps in Crisis Management:

  1. Establish a core national team to lead on this crisis. This team should include chair of the board, the executive director, the heads of development/fundraising, programmes, communication and HR. Each of this leadership team is responsible for regular updates with their counterparts in key offices around the world and must bring these updates to the Core Team.
  2. Map Your Audiences: Internal/all staff – current and former; board of directors; volunteers; peers; influencers (academics, bloggers, online aggregating fundraising sites such as ECHOage); government officials (elected and non-elected); media; professional associations (especially those you work with for recruitment, research, donor development – for example CANWaCH, Canadian Association of Midwives, Engineers Canada, Canadian Nursing Association, Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and so forth). Assign line responsibility to monitor and proactively communicate with each of your audiences.
  3. Develop Key Messages and Update Regularly: Identify and address the core elements of the crisis. For example: “critical lack of judgment in recruitment and oversight”. Or “fundamental failure of trust when execution fails the mission (to protect and provide care to the most vulnerable populations). Establish your facts;
  4. Develop a ‘Fact Sheet’, Publish It and Update it Daily. What do you know? What is your organizations’ role or responsibility in any of this? Why/how is your organization different than Oxfam? What protections and systems do you have in place to address any risks to vulnerable beneficiaries? How are they working?

Quickly separate the facts from the hyperbole and communicate/establish the facts.

  1. What Action Is Your Organization Taking? Tell People. Figure out what needs to change and change it! Do you support calls for humanitarian agency oversight? Are you exploring the creation of an independent body for the creation/management of expat recruitment?   Are you participating in a sector wide consultation around change, protection, and/or innovation related to field staffing?
  2. Use every Communications Channel, Tool and Platform at your Disposal to Communicate and Reach your Audiences. Be as discrete as the situation warrants but do not hesitate to proactively address this crisis. With your talking points confirmed, pick up the phone and engage your stakeholders/your publics in a frank and robust conversation about this matter. And check back in a week and again in a month to see how you are doing at getting your message across.

These recommendations are very top line and intended as a nudge to get you focused. The key takeaway is that no INGO can bury their head in the sands on this. However with thoughtful, honest, proactive and targeted communications and new actions, you can make inroads into any erosion of public trust and, in doing so, establish your bona fides as a compassionate and transparent organization who exists to serve the most vulnerable.

Stay tuned for my next post on the #Oxfam scandal where we’ll explore opportunities to transform the HR function of INGOs related to recruitment and management of expatriate experts to field offices in developing countries.

Susanne Courtney

Email me if you want to discuss:

Susanne Courtney

Susanne Courtney

With 20 years as an entrepreneur & leader in communications consulting in Canada, the US and around the world, followed by a decade in senior executive positions with INGOs, Susanne is committed to helping local NFPs have their voices heard as equal partners.

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