Let's Play the Game of Risk

Recently, I turned the final page on Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book, Midnight in Chernobyl, a seemingly minute-by-minute account of the human-made events leading up to and following the 1986 nuclear disaster in North-Central Ukraine.

It’s a chilling retelling of the many systemic and individual missteps and mistakes made in the decades prior to that fateful night in April. As with most catastrophic failures, the Chernobyl explosion was not due to a single point of failure, but a historical cascade of near-sighted decision making that when compounded resulted in a global disaster.

Thankfully, most of us will never find ourselves in a similar position to those engineers sitting at the control consoles trying to make sense of a deluge of conflicting messages and warnings. However, risk, broadly defined, is part and parcel of our daily and professional lives, and it is no different for the nonprofit practitioner.

Given the daily demands on most service providers in the nonprofit sector, it is easy to become hyper focused on the present, thinking there will be time later to reflect on and prepare for future risks.

But that mindset, in and of itself, can become part of a larger systemic failure later.

No one can predict the future, and certainly no one can exhaustively prepare for all the possible negative future scenarios that might impact you, your board, your staff, and your organization (raise your hand if you had global pandemic on your 2020 bingo card).

Throwing up our arms and thinking, “If I can’t prepare for everything, why prepare for anything?” is the wrong mindset. Even if the preparations made today can never fully predict the actual future you may face, you and your nonprofit organization are still building the muscle memory and developing the quick reflexes to respond to and navigate future negative consequences and potential catastrophes.

So, let’s play the game of risk more often, and ask ourselves truthfully whether we are prepared for what the future may bring. In addition to standard steps such as coverage for legal liabilities that may be incurred on your physical premises or through delivery of services and programs by your organization, what else is your organization doing?

• Does your organization have a board approved succession plan in place plan should your leadership, either through a personal or professional event, become unable to lead?

• Do you have a general crisis communication plan in place should an external or internal event present risk to your financial sustainability or public reputation?

• Does part of your development and sustainability plan include a safety net of targeted operational reserves should an unexpected economic downturn occur, or a reliable funding source dissipate unexpectedly?

• Have you completed a third-party programmatic audit or operational assessment recently to take a closer look at internal systemic procedures and policies that may have to this point been running effectively in the background?

It's never fun to think about the unexpected, but we should never let fear or uncertainty get in the way of planning, preparation, and an honest assessment of where our internal operational systems can be improved.

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