Five Quick Rules for Nonprofits Confronting a Crisis

Chris Devins’ Mural of Michelle Obama

There’s a lot that can be learned from the controversy affecting a small Chicago nonprofit last week. It was reported that more than $11,000 had been raised to erect a mural of former First Lady Michelle Obama featuring an image that had neither been cleared with or credited to the original artist, New York-based artist Gelila Mesfin. In a media interview, Chris Devins not only took credit for creating the work himself, but he also gave quotes on his inspirations during its development. A process that we all know now never actually happened.

Unfortunately, Mr. Devin’s response to the accusations once they became public on Twitter was pretty disappointing. After a series of arrogant (now deleted) tweets, he released a statement calling it a misunderstanding with an expectation of a correction in the original article. The backlash was swift and harsh.

Let’s say you find yourself in a situation like this where you’re working on behalf of a phenomenal and impactful mission. Here are a few tips on how to make things right in the public eye:

Say you’re sorry immediately. When it appeared that a mother of two had been unfairly ejected from the plane and another passenger threatened with violence by a flight attendant, American Airlines wasted absolutely no time in saying that’s not ok and we’re sorry about what happened — regardless of who was to blame. The worst thing you can do is make it about yourself. Even if you feel that you’re 100 percent in the right, try to let the public know that you understand where their outrage would stem from.

Apologize directly to those you’ve wronged. In Mr. Devins’ case, running to Twitter before contacting the artist directly wasn’t the best move. Also remember that deleting a tweet doesn’t destroy it completely thanks to screenshots.

When you do apologize, make sure it has some substance to it. Do not issue a non-apology and try to excuse your actions as either for the greater good of the mission (as Mr. Devins did), or suggest it was somehow the fault of the perceived victim (Shame, United Airlines). Take full responsibility for whatever happened since it ultimately is attached to your name and credibility.

Do not blame the media or anyone else. As the New York Times has shown with their shift in coverage of President Trump and his administration, an angry or offended media is the worst kind of enemy to have. Own what happened and announce how you plan to fix things. There’s a Trini saying that would come in very handy here, but I’m sure my elders would not appreciate me sharing it outside of the family room.

Finally, apologize again. As a nonprofit, you have another very important audience that will not only want to know the details of how the situation came to be, but they’ll also be watching to see how you handle the crisis. The response to a problem is so critical because it demonstrates if your leadership capabilities are in line with expectations.

Reach out to your board members, major donors and any other stakeholders to provide your side of the story, as well as your plan to make it right.

Otherwise, your next budget meeting might look like…

There is a bright side to this story for the Ms. Mesfin. DNA Info Chicago reported that Mr. Devins would ultimately be paying some compensation for the use of her artwork. Here’s to hoping that the recognition for her outstanding work takes her far.