What is an issue management plan?

An email from your CRM vendor states that it suffered a cyber-attack that includes your organization and possible stolen data, such as donor information, phone numbers, donation history, and even events attended.

On July 16, 2020, nonprofits in the U.K., U.S., and Canada received this type of notification from Blackbaud, one of the world’s largest providers of education administration, fundraising, and financial management software. These nonprofits now have to assess their situation and communicate the consequences of the hack on their organization. The question is: Does leadership have a plan and messages to communicate effectively to stakeholders?

Along with data breaches, the pandemic and economic conditions also bring unprecedented challenges to nonprofit operations, which can cause significant problems if not appropriately handled and can threaten relationships that took years to develop. These challenges can quickly turn negative fast and cause reputational harm and scrutiny by the media, government, and donors. The need for preparedness is greater than ever as organizations deal with numerous unknowns now upon us.

Nonprofits serve the greater good and hold a high level of social responsibility to protect the health, well-being, and security of the people they serve. When crises strike, leaders must address them authentically and transparently. The worst thing leaders can do in a crisis? Nothing.

Here are three thought starters to assess if your organization is prepared for a crisis.

  • Message platform

Having at the ready a current messaging platform—mapped to perhaps half a dozen potential issues—sets the nonprofit on a proactive path to a quick recovery. This document provides a valuable tool to work from when navigating problems caused by the pandemic or other challenges that require statements on your operations.

The platform will be foundational to the nonprofit. The messages allow leadership the flexibility to tailor words according to the issue and affected stakeholder, and state how the organization is addressing the situation. The document enables employees to speak with one voice and communicate effectively. With vetted messaging, the nonprofit can handle curveballs, make quick decisions, bring people together, and turn the issue into a solution for the nonprofit.

  • Personnel and process

One of the essential requirements for handling issues effectively is having a designated point person who is a strong coordinator and communicator. Depending on the size of the nonprofit, it can be the communications leader or another leader. The point person must work from a plan (described below) and notification procedures in terms of involving team members, responses, and spokespeople.

Job one is conducting fact-finding in connection with the issue and assembling a factual basis for the level of impact and decision-making. It’s essential to distribute the process and public statements internally to ensure the staff understands the organization’s situation. Leadership needs to decide media and online communications protocols and decision-making (whether centralized or decentralized) before issues emerge and the need to respond are pressing.

  • Communications strategy

The plan comprises a list of various issues and scenarios with corresponding strategies and tactics to address each one. Once the nonprofit has a clear sense of the problem, the plan provides a path to achieving objectives, ensuring brand reputation, and mitigating the issue. It also provides a guidepost to decide what types of materials and levels of response the nonprofit needs within given time frames and the nature of the issue. The plan helps deal with ambiguities. The essential element is that a plan helps the nonprofit stay in front of the problem.


Issue management is not an entity within itself. It is a combination of many communication and management disciplines that coalesce to form one cohesive function. And this function will always be necessary because systems fail, emergencies occur, and misconduct happens. But now that nonprofits are dealing with a pandemic and one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history, issue management is a strategic and survival imperative. Having a playbook is not only a needed safeguard, it is also a way to demonstrate the strength and sustainability of the nonprofit.

If you need assistance developing an issue management plan, please contact Marti at mjones@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Marti Jones

Vice President

Marti Jones, Vice President, brings more than 20 years of integrated communications experience from world-renowned nonprofit organizations. Marti’s career has grown from raising awareness and funds for the American Red Cross before and after 9/11 to leading strategy for brands such as Mayo Clinic, Duke Health, and M Health Fairview,…