keep track of your crises

The Value & Importance of Preserving Organizational Memory of Extraordinary Times

The covid-19 pandemic of 2020/2021 has been the world’s greatest crisis since World War II. I’m sure it has affected your organization in dramatic ways. You have been responding. Time will show that some of your responses were wise, some were unnecessary, and maybe even that some were foolish.

Don’t forget what you are learning in these times, because crises will come again. The pandemic is unprecedented, but science tells us this will not be the last global pandemic.

I’m thinking about this because I recently heard a podcast that was a panel discussion by a group of fund-raising executives for large, well-known charities. One was from St. Jude Hospital. (I forget the others, sorry. I do my podcast listening in the kitchen, while cooking or washing up, so don’t generally take notes.)

One participant said the pandemic was his organization’s eighth crisis since he was with them. The list of eight included some things that affected everyone, like 9/11 and the Great Recession, and some things that affected only his organization. He is a leader in a Catholic charity, and at one point there was a big push to force the organization to get merged into the diocesan structure. Powerful people were pushing for it, and powerful people were pushing against it. It remained independent, but yeah, that crisis shook up everything they were doing.

What struck me is that he clearly remembered all eight crises, how his organization responded, and what it learned from each. That has allowed it to respond with speed, understanding, and wisdom to the pandemic of 2020/2021. Sure every crisis is different, but a robust organizational memory from past crises is a great asset.

Connected to this is:

1.      The value of long-time people in the leadership team. Maybe the young leader at the top has never faced anything like this before, but the organization might have team members who have.

2.      The value of deliberately listening to, and learning from, the old-timers, even retired leadership. If your organization has a long history, find ways to bring back these people from time to time to spin their stories.

To give one concrete example, a different panelist in the podcast recalled something his organization learned in a prior great crisis – the 2004 Asian tsunami. They discovered that people who were first-time givers for that crisis generally turned into long-term, faithful, generous donors. That bit of understanding is informing how his organization has treated first-time donors in 2020/2021.

love, joy, peace … Michael Michael is a freelance consultant to nonprofits, with an emphasis on research. Contact him for a free, one-hour consultation.

Vol. 1 No. 24