A big thank you to Whitney Claire Thomey from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center for this guest post!

Certain aspects of the risk management discipline are more compelling than others. It’s easy to see how Enterprise Risk Management harnesses the power of your organization’s strategic initiatives and bolsters the opportunity for your mission to grow and succeed. Having candid conversations about daily risks can become a simple standard practice that helps keep preventable risks in check. And annual reviews of insurance policies are necessary and routine to protect the mission from liabilities.

However, business continuity planning (BCP) often feels like a burden and is an uncomfortable, time-consuming topic to discuss thoroughly. Therefore, it rarely receives the attention that it deserves. Instead of focusing on the negative implications that disruptions cause to your organization and your mission—which often leaves BCP stuck on the backburner—realize how having a clear plan to deal with business interruptions empowers and protects the vital work that your organization does to serve your community and constituents.

Why is BCP important?

The first step in moving your organization’s business continuity plan to the front and center is establishing its value to the organization. So, why is business continuity planning so vital to a mission-driven organization?

Know in advance the critical operations

From a power outage to a pandemic, disruptions never occur on a predictable schedule. Business continuity planning shifts your organization from a defensive state to an offensive one, making sure that nonprofit leaders won’t have to scramble to respond rapidly and improvise when unexpected outages pop up. Being able to pivot quickly can make or break stakeholder trust. A primary function of your business continuity plan is to establish which operations are mission-critical, which services and processes you can do without for a finite period, and which activities can be wound down or halted indefinitely.

When a disruption does occur, response time is crucial to ensure that indispensable services are available, allowing your mission to continue with minimal downside impact. Ideally, business continuity plans are created far in advance, under low-stress conditions, making it possible for cool heads to prevail during the disruption.

One-stop-shop for contingency information

Your business continuity plan collects all kinds of essential, necessary information that make it possible for vital operations to continue in the face of any type of disruption. And it’s likely that your organization already has many of the answers! However, it’s the potency of collation that makes a BCP so powerful. By taking the time to collect and catalog procedures, processes, and points-of-contact, you remove the stress associated with being able to quickly access required resources while also dealing with a crisis in real-time.

The hidden benefit

We have established that contingency planning helps identify in advance the operations and services that are mission-critical to your organization. You’ve seen that it can be leveraged as a one-stop-shop for essential resources and points of contact for your vendors and services. But did you know that there’s an inherent hidden benefit to contingency planning?

You might be surprised to learn that the true benefit of contingency planning lies not in quickly selecting Plan B or Plan C when a disruption occurs. The actual advantage lies in the process. When teams come together to execute planning exercises to brainstorm what disruptions might happen, how they will affect the organization, and what can be done to mitigate the damages they build resilience. Essentially, it flexes the muscles needed to make thinking on your feet a salient and normalized practice. Therefore, it’s not just the final plan but also the time spent discussing and preparing a business continuity plan that helps prepare your nonprofit.

Driven by diversity

If you’ve begun drafting a business continuity plan for your organization and watched it die on the vine or get back-burnered for a more pressing project, the temptation to go it alone is enticing. However alluring it might seem to sit down and hammer out all the details without the organizational drag of a committee, this is a suboptimal approach.

A practical business continuity plan examines the organization with a holistic view. No one department or managerial level has all the answers. BCP cannot be solely focused on information technology any more than it can only consider boots on the ground operations. As organizations move through business impact analysis exercises and begin identifying the crucial areas of service that must not be interrupted, diverse perspectives make all the difference. Establishing a team of individuals representing a variety of functional groups and with differing levels of responsibility will ensure that no stone is left unturned.

Getting buy-in

It might seem like an insurmountable task to find team members who will want to hunker down and run the marathon of creating a business continuity plan. However, don’t assume that your colleagues won’t be interested! Start by asking for volunteers. It’s human nature to worry, and uncertainty causes stress and anxiety. Being involved in an effort to establish plans for combatting risk has the potential to ease anxiety and make people feel better.

People decide whether to buy-in to things when they have a stake in the investment. Consider how accomplished you feel after completing a big DIY project! This is the concept of the “IKEA Effect.” Even if you only assemble something, you immediately have a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Asking staff members to help shape the plan allows their voices and concerns to be heard and safeguards responsibilities, programs, and services that are important to them.

Break the glass! Don’t keep your BCP a secret. There is a tendency to think of continuity planning, crisis management, and succession planning as organizational secrets. Nothing in your BCP should be embarrassing or contain information staff shouldn’t know. Making the plans public among your internal stakeholders will give them comfort and empowerment to be part of the process.

Get the word out

Knowing that the organization is prepared to weather difficult times can be comforting to staff, stakeholders (your board and funders), and the community you serve. An important piece of the business continuity planning process is sharing your plans with a broad audience. With that in mind, your communications should be targeted accordingly; the message that you send to staff about the plan and decisions for enacting it won’t be the same as what you share with your community funders.

When preparing messaging about your BCP, consider creating some criteria to help you group stakeholders to ensure that the right information gets to each person. You might ask questions such as:

Insiders – Board, Management, Staff

Some staff and management may already be somewhat aware of your organization’s business continuity plan since they likely participated in the process on some level. However, everyone inside your organization should know that the plan exists, where it exists (whether there’s a hard copy or where the digital files can be found), and the steps for activating it when an event occurs. The final step is critical, as not every incident may warrant a deviation from “business as usual.” As we mentioned before, the plan shouldn’t be a secret; it’s an invaluable asset!

External – Community, Public

The people you serve and those who support your mission will take comfort knowing that the organization has a plan to sustain and continue mission-critical activities when the going gets tough. However, there’s no need to mire them down in the nitty-gritty details of how you will shift to Plan B when the need arises. A simple one-page document with clear contact information is what the public needs to know about your response. Start with messaging you have developed for any recent disruption and tweak it to be easily customized for other situations.

If a mid to wide-spread impact occurs that causes the nonprofit to radically alter services to your community or necessitates a fundraising campaign to help support during the time of need, you’ll need to communicate requirements and changes to this stakeholder group clearly. Consider distributing your message through a variety of sources, making it easily accessible to many people.  Consider these possibilities:


Maintaining an open flow of communication with your essential vendors will ensure that expectations and obligations are met even when you can’t do business like you usually would. Involving your vendors in your BCP plans will make sure that services you rely on them for will be available and operating without impact during the disruption. Points of contact may change, or the types of services that your partners can provide could be altered. Therefore, an essential step in a good vendor relationship is to have clear, open communication!

Test the waters

"Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good." --Malcolm Gladwell Outliers: The Story of Success

Having a plan isn’t enough. BCPs should be rigorously and regularly tested. As with many risk management tactics, business continuity planning isn’t a linear “one time” event. It’s a cycle that should be refined and revisited repeatedly.

The best-laid plans…

Testing is a powerful step in the BCP cycle. It is during this phase that you breathe life into the pages of your contingency plans. Executing simulations strengthens the plans that you captured by verifying that they are functional and appropriate. Your tests allow you to calmly and systematically identify any weaknesses or gaps, confirm that the objectives are met, and improve upon the drafted systems and processes. Each time your BCP is put through rigors is an opportunity to update and improve as your organization evolves and adapts. Each time trials are conducted, team members can evaluate the response and develop proficiency for the contingency. The real beauty of testing comes in being able to deliver the developed response under ideal, no-stress situations.

You say tomato, I say tomahto

Options for testing your plans are as varied as there are missions and organizations. The variety of testing options and methods means that it’s easy to find a right-sized approach for your organization, team members, and plan. Finding the best fit makes testing a reality for all organizations and eliminates excuses.

You may choose one testing method or several so long as the approach ensures that objectives mentioned above—identifying weaknesses and strengthening processes, to name a few—are met. At a minimum, consider a plan review with team members outside of the initial drafting committee. Receiving feedback from staff who weren’t a part of the planning process will shed light on any areas that were omitted or misunderstood.

Executing more complete simulations through tabletop exercises, walkthrough drills, and full functional recovery tests will provide an added layer of credibility to the plans you’ve drafted. Tabletop exercises could be completed during team meetings for your organization’s functional groups, and simulation testing can a specially scheduled all-hands meeting. The amount of time needed for each of these different methods varies greatly, and therefore gives staff and volunteers an opportunity to thoroughly vet the processes and procedures in your organization’s BCP.

Lather, rinse, repeat

Analysis, evaluation, planning, and testing must occur on a regular schedule to be genuinely useful. Making testing and training routine will ensure that when a disruption occurs, your organization will be prepared to respond as seamlessly as possible.

Testing timelines, just like your plans, must be built to suit. Some factors that will impact how often testing should occur are the size of your organization, availability of personnel (paid staff and volunteers), resources at your disposal, and the maturity level of the business continuity plan itself. What’s right for an organization in your sector might not be right for your organization! Build a testing program that makes sense for you and you increase the likelihood of its success.

Consider various employment milestones as touchpoints for your testing process. Employee and volunteer onboarding are excellent times to communicate and train new stakeholders on the plan. Their unique perspectives may offer a fresh look at methods, so incorporating this feedback will help strengthen organizational resilience. Some organizations find it helpful to set aside time quarterly, annually, and bi-annually to conduct larger-scale run-throughs. Putting these on an organizational calendar will allow departments and staff to plan and secure needed time for these intense practice sessions.

Another way to test and review your plan is to examine the contingency operations any time a significant change is made to a process or system. The plan can be reviewed and tested in smaller, digestible chunks by examining points-of-contact, lists, and procedures when changes are made. If your organization goes through an annual vendor review, take that time to ensure all contact information in your plan is current and correct.

If you have outside vendors that provide mission-critical services, consider including them in your testing protocols. For example, if your nonprofit is a human services agency that contracts with a bus company to transport clients, this outside partner provides a critical service that should be part of your exercises. At a minimum, make sure you know they have a BCP and who your points of contact will be if there’s a disruption.

Don’t let this valuable organizational resource simmer forgotten on the stove. Bring the discussion to a full boil with staff, management, and your board. The powerful resource that results will ensure the protection and safety of your organization’s mission.

What a deeper dive into BCP? Download The Business Continuity Planning issue of Risk Management Essentialshere.

The views, information and opinions expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Accreditation (COA). COA invites guest authors to contribute to the COA blog due to COA’s confidence in their knowledge on the subject matter and their expertise in their chosen field.

Whitney Claire Thomey

Whitney Thomey serves as Project Manager at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center (NRMC). Whitney’s diverse professional experience includes project management duties in local government, legal services, web & content development, human resources, and bicycle mechanics and tour operations. Her background in Anthropology and Ethnology brings a refreshing perspective to examining internal operations and processes. Whitney earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of William and Mary.

To plan or not to plan? On a personal level, planning is an essential aspect of everyday life. What do I need to get done today? This week? This month? In many ways, planning helps us prepare for the challenges and tasks that may lie ahead. Think of the to-do lists that you make. Whether you physically write tasks down, use an app to organize your to-do’s, or arrange them in your mind, you are planning what needs to get done. In a sense, you are mapping out your future by addressing things that require your attention in the present. It stimulates your mind to embrace the future and envision yourself doing something to reach a desired result. Planning is a necessary activity in setting goals for yourself.

For human service organizations, whether small or large, planning is equally essential. As an organization that provides goods and services to individuals and families with varying levels of need, it is imperative that forecasting is done. This helps to create a roadmap for the direction in which the organization is headed. This is where long-term planning comes in.

Strategic planning, which is synonymous with long-term planning, is about establishing goals to sustain the future of human service organizations. Why is it called strategic planning? Strategy is the operative word from which strategic is derived. Historically, strategy was associated with the appointment of a general in the military to provide guidance on defeating enemies within battle. To serve as an advisor, many things had to be considered, including the size of the opposing army, weaponry, level of skill, landscape at battle locations, etc. in order to develop a winning strategy. Essentially, knowledge on competing factors had to be gathered to make informed decisions about next steps.

Strategic planning for nonprofit organizations follows a similar concept. Since the late 20th century, strategic planning has been used in the nonprofit sector to gather knowledge in order to determine strategy for advancing an organization’s mission. While creating a strategic plan involves levels of complexity and can be overwhelming to think about, it is critical to have a process in place for developing the plan.

Some people ask, “why should we establish a multi-year plan, when organizations are working under the pressures of an ever-changing economic, social and political climate?” While this may very well be true, in the words of Yogi Berra, “if you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Human service organizations need something to which they can ascribe and push themselves to continuously evolve for the purpose of fulfilling their missions. So, if the organization is operating in a fast-paced environment, strategic planning supports the need to stay on a particular course rather than change paths so frequently that the direction in which the organization is headed is not clear to anyone within the organization.

Strategic planning is about creating a strategy where the end product is a long-term plan to be implemented over the next four years, at minimum. It isn’t just about identifying broad goals to be realized, but also key strategies for how the organization will meet those goals. The traditional strategic planning methodology involves getting feedback from different internal and external stakeholders, such as staff, clients, and community partners; obtaining information on the environment, such as with a community needs assessment or environmental scan; and conducting an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the organization.  Many organizations tend to omit a SWOT analysis from their strategic planning process; however, it is beneficial because it provides an assessment of the internal (strengths and weaknesses) and external (opportunities and threats) landscape. Since the strategic planning process includes perspectives from various types of stakeholders, an organization can incorporate feedback in these categories to inform strategic decision-making.  Mind Tools, Inc. offers some great resources on conducting a SWOT analysis.

As is the case with for-profit organizations, typically the owners, board members, and leadership in nonprofit organizations lead the strategic planning process. Strategic planning is a critical activity within human service organizations because it provides a sense of direction in which the organization is headed.

If my organization develops an annual plan, should we still develop a strategic plan?

To put it simply, yes. Your organization should still create and implement a strategic plan, even if annual plans are developed; each plan has a different purpose.

The strategic plan identifies the framework for the organization on how to build and sustain programming over time. Should the organization pursue a new funding stream, provide new services aligned with its mission, adopt a trauma-informed model? The strategic planning process allows the organization to determine ways to advance its mission and consider the resources needed to do this. If the organization wants to build a new, state-of-the-art training facility, the strategic plan would include strategies to secure funding, such as a capital investment grant.

The annual plan can include goals that are directly or indirectly related to the strategic plan and are specific to the department or program. So, essentially, the strategic plan influences the annual plan; it is usually not the other way around. Annual planning is largely connected to the budgetary approval process for the next fiscal year. Therefore, it usually involves department and program directors since they project anticipated revenue and expenses, and ways the department is expected to grow. For the annual plan, organizations need to consider where they want programs to be within the next year and the strategic priorities shape those annual goals. Does the organization want to increase the number of clients served by 15% or offer support groups to survivors of human trafficking? The annual plan is operational and considers the daily tasks needed to run a program or department. If one of the organization’s strategic goals is to provide trauma-informed care to clients in all 3 counties where services are provided, then providing new support groups to trafficking survivors seems more closely aligned with the organization’s strategic plan than increasing the number of clients served in programs. This is an example of how an annual plan goal is supported by a goal outlined in the strategic plan.  The strategic plan should guide the organization’s yearly objectives.

Strategic Planning versus Annual Planning Table

In order to successfully implement both strategic and annual plans, the organization should identify opportunities to track progress over time. Establishing clear metrics to demonstrate whether goals have been accomplished allows the organization to periodically verify implementation of either type of plan. Determining how progress is measured is equally as important as developing the plan and should be outlined within procedures. Once a clear mechanism has been established, it should be outlined in the strategic and annual planning procedures.

Benefits of strategic planning

Benefits of annual planning

So, back to the original question, to plan or not to plan? If you are likely to plan out your day, week, or even the next month, hopefully, you see the value in planning the priorities for your organization over the next year and especially how the next several years could potentially look. In addition to creating an opportunity to explore new avenues for the organization, strategic and annual planning can foster a sense of hope in your staff about what may be on the horizon for your organization, despite all the external pressures that organizations continuously face.

A few resources

Example of a strategic and annual plan.
Example of a strategic and annual plan.

It is no secret that the Council on Accreditation (COA) believes in what we do. We promote best practices and help our organizations to implement them with the aim that clients across the social services field will get the best possible quality of care. By accrediting the entire organization, we ensure that everyone—from human resources to finances to support staff—is working together to carry out that mission.

90% of surveyed organizations agree that COA accreditation has improved their quality of services. 86% agree that COA accreditation has improved outcomes for the people they serve.

This is the “why” of organizational accreditation for COA and our accreditees alike. We are all here to do good; following best practices helps us do good in the most effective way possible.

Improving service quality is the most important benefit of organizational accreditation. But from our experience, it is not the only benefit! Every time an organization completes the accreditation process, COA asks about its impact. Several themes have come out of our survey responses.  

Organizational accreditation improves operations.

Whole-organization accreditation provides a framework for staff to look at how they fulfill their mission now and discover how they can do so better. The benefits along the way are multifold: more open communication, sound strategic plans, streamlined work systems, better risk management…the list goes on. When an organization looks at itself holistically, it can find the root of any problems and be better equipped to solve them.

"We have really enjoyed the fact that we are united by the power [of] COA accreditation and by sharing our common mission [of] providing children and families, in a contexual and in a multicultural approach, with the best." -Jorge Alberto Acosta, Founder of Nuevo Amanecer Latino Children's Services

94% of COA-accredited organizations agree that accreditation improves organizational learning and knowledge. 82% agree that it improves organizational capacity. COA accreditation has helped some organizations bring themselves back from the brink of bankruptcy; others have used it as a tool to position themselves to become leaders in the field.

Many have expressed that reaccreditation is not an end of itself, but a tool to help them achieve new heights of living their mission. COA is proud to help them do that.

Organizational accreditation boosts marketability.

Organizational accreditation is a professional, 3rd-party recognition that an organization meets the highest standard for both quality service delivery and administrative practices. The effort that an organization goes through to achieve accreditation proves just how much its staff cares about what they do.

This hard work helps organizations stand out among competitors and builds goodwill. 85% of our organizations agree that COA accreditation improves their organization’s marketability. 90% agree that it improves their relationship with external stakeholders. Clients and community alike are looking for signs of quality—accreditation gives them a big one.

Organizational accreditation helps secure funding.

"By maintaining our accreditation over the past 16 years, my organization has been able to be a leader in the field, and successful in securing government and private foundation grants to further our mission." -Sister Linda Yankoski, President/CEO of the Holy Family Institute

Organizational accreditation verifies that an organization not only does quality work, but also has sound financial, administrative, operational, and oversight practices. This third-party verification can inspire the confidence funders need to support an organization as it continues to grow.

This can help in terms of government funding, as well. COA is recognized in over 300 instances in 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and China. Our list of recognitions continues to grow, and with it the financial benefit to our accredited organizations. As of December 2018, 70% of our organizations agree that COA accreditation ensures funding.

Organizational accreditation can give staff a sense of fulfillment.

Accreditation encourages organizations to look at themselves frankly and work toward continuous quality improvement. This can allow staff to take a break from their daily grind and appreciate the big picture of their impact. Organizational accreditation also facilitates transparency and open communication, which can increase trust and the feeling that everyone is working as part of one team.  Finally, the quest for quality improvement provides staff with new professional opportunities, allowing them to lead the charge toward a brighter future for those they serve. 

Almost three quarters of COA-accredited organizations agree that accreditation improves workforce engagement, and over half agree that it improves staff retention. Many of our organizations describe how empowering it is to see the change in mindset that accreditation can bring.

Organizational accreditation holds the team to its goals.

"Partnering with COA supports our agency's continuous improvement efforts, aligns our work with best practices, and helps cultivate a well-developed, competent workforce dedicated to rending top-notch service delivery to our community." -Pravin Patel, Human Services Manager II at the San Mateo County Human Services Agency

As anyone with a broken New Year’s resolution knows, it is easy to put great plans in place and never carry them out. Accreditation (and reaccreditation!) forces organizations to follow through with those great plans, holding them accountable to be the best they can be.

94% of COA-accredited organizations agree that our whole-organization accreditation improves transparency and accountability. Through it, staff become not only accountable to their clients and stakeholders, but to themselves.

Time and time again, accreditation has proved transformative for our organizations, supporting their mission and allowing them to provide clients with the quality service they deserve. COA is grateful and humbled to be a part of this important process.

Have you experienced other accreditation benefits not listed here? Share them with us in the comments!

SOURCE: All statistics are pulled from 2018 survey data from organizations accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA).