Lessons Learned from Acts of Nature

Hurricane Aftermath

Hard to imagine but there needs to be a plan.

For the past two weeks, after Hurricane / Super Storm Sandy, I have been scrambling. Yes I live in New Jersey and I had no power for two weeks but I characterize it as an unflattering scramble. Like the accountant who doesn’t balance his checkbook (wondering if people still balance their checkbooks.)

I did exactly what I tell my clients not do to. I panicked. And I had no plan.

I launched a brand new blog, promised subscribers weekly insights, and missed two weeks.  Don’t let me off the hook by telling me you were scrambling too and wouldn’t have read them.

We all should have been scrambling less. Here are some lessons learned and some tips.


Your staff and your passionate board members and volunteers did work hard. I bet they were in overdrive. Passion does that for people. I know my friends at Gods Love We Deliver went above and beyond to get food to their clients under tough circumstances. Board members chipped in and made tuna sandwiches for HIV/AIDS patients at GMHC. And this list goes on.

Write an email at the very least but make some calls. And handwritten notes go a long way.


This is the step so many people miss.  You are so happy to be back up and running and have SO many to-dos waiting for you, so many emails that are older than you can even bear. But you have to do it.

I called a meeting with myself and debriefed. I made a commitment that by this time next week, I would have an inventory of 3-4 blog posts of the evergreen variety that I could schedule to distribute in the event of some kind of act of nature.  This is part of my business.  It’s a “brand promise.”


1) Allocate 2 hours.  I know you don’t have this much time.  Make the time.  It’s an investment.

2) Schedule the meeting this week to take place next week.  After next week, it loses its efficacy.

3) Get the right people at the table.  Right = IT,  Program folks, a lead volunteer, the ED, and the head of Development.  The volunteer could be a board member but if it restricts candor, bring in someone who helped.

4) Sample Agenda (meeting to be run by E.D.)

I.  APPRECIATIONS – be sure to know (or be told) of some “above and beyond” staff and volunteer stories that make the case that you have great people deeply committed to the cause.

II. WHAT WORKED – go around the room.  What did you have in place that made a difference?  Include here any positive feedback you received from clients.

III. OBJECT LESSONS — were there simple things you could have done before or in the moment that might have helped?

IV. WHAT DID NOT WORK — here, in a constructive and respectful way, talk about the big challenges.

V.  SET GOALS — in a ‘next time’ situation, what would be a reasonable target, be it # of days without a server, # of clients served.

VI.  CREATE THE BONES OF A PLAN — talk through the issues and be honest about whether you would have to tie a price tag to any of the items.

VII.  CREATE A SUBCOMMITTEE — ask for two volunteers to (a) document the debrief and (b) return in 30 days with a very simple (don’t go crazy) plan for consideration by the larger group.


1) Count your blessings.

2) In honor of your east coast nonprofit colleagues, call your own two hour meeting. Craft a plan or review the one you have.


I found myself wondering. Did anyone get this right? Kept wondering. How do organizations in the disaster relief business manage their own?  So I reached out to my friend Caryl Stern, President and CEO of UNICEF – USA for an interview last week, just after Sandy left town. We all have something to learn from her story. You’ll find it on Huffington Post.  Click to read “Good Organizations Scramble, Great Organizations Plan.”

NEXT: Share Your War Stories

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Thanks for sharing this! Our organization had just moved to the Financial District of NYC a few months before the storm unexpectedly kicked us out for three weeks while HazMat and construction crews took over what was once our beautiful downtown Manhattan office building. I have to say – we were completely fine – thanks to doing just what you say – plan, plan, plan.

    We employ adults with autism and the disruption in their schedules and the ‘work from home’ days with only phone contact and email were no problem at all because we practiced them like crazy before we had to.

    We also have the great advantage of traveling around the world all of the time, so all of our information is always stored in the Cloud and we actually run our entire organization email system off of a super robust version of Gmail, so there was no trouble accessing our information at all.

    I HIGHLY suggest that every organization does exactly as you say and makes a solid plan. Figure out which tech platforms will enable you to have a full-staff meeting (we used gotowebinar). Set up a program (we use call loop) to text everyone and make sure they are all okay, that is the most important thing in a distaster- our Clinical Director’s family lost their home in the storm and so we had to plan to delegate her tasks for the next few weeks.

    I was so incredibly pleased with everyone. That being said – we did debrief, we made more of a plan for the future. We found out where/ how to rent temporary officespace and we now have an account with them for if/when we’re unexpectedly out of our office again. Working from home worked, but we all missed each other after 3 weeks!

    Great advice, thank you!

    • first off, your comment reminded me that my son was in a band two years ago called the HazMats. had forgotten that 🙂 i hope my readers read your comment in full. great example of planning. and the gotowebinar – very smart indeed. thanks for the ideas.