Is Your Organization Thinking of Canceling an Event Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Scenario Planning Tips for Nonprofit Organizations Dealing with Public Health Events

What Reaction is a Good Reaction

I have had a bunch of questions over the past week about how nonprofits should be handling events that are occurring in the next month or so due to the potential issues with contagious illnesses, in this case coronavirus (COVID-19). While this is a situation to monitor and there is some uncertainty, life goes on. With strategy and knowledge your organization will be able to handle it. Long-term flexible planning, aka adaptation, is a necessity even when there is nothing on the horizon. The short answer is, there are definitely challenges to face, but there are also plenty of opportunities.

Pro Tip: You can get great ideas that you would never have thought of if you strategize with your entire staff.

First things first, has your organization been impacted in the past by a public health event? Think back to the swine flu or SARS. How was that handled? This can be a good starting point for your planning.

What Does the CDC say?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for organizations handling COVID-19 is:

  1. Encourage sick staff to stay home.
  2. Separate staff that are sick from people that show no symptoms.
  3. Encourage proper hygiene.
  4. Routinely clean all surfaces that are regularly people touch should have routine cleaning. (Normal cleaning products are just fine)
  5. All employees should take precautions if traveling.

The link above has a full list and a detailed break down on the specifics for community organizations on the best practices in preparing your organization.

Additionally, the CDC suggests that staff who have a confirmed infected family member at their home should let management know. The organization should then follow the CDC guidance for performing a risk assessment. If a staff member is confirmed to be infected, the employer should inform all employees while keeping personal information confidential. Afterword, follow up with the same CDC risk assessment above.

Use your area’s health department as a resource for up-to-date regional information. You can find your local health department on the National Association of County and City Health Officials website.

The flowchart below shows a great way to work through scenarios, like this one, and come to a conclusion on plans of action.
Rowland, N. & Spaniol, M., Defining Scenario, Figure 2, 2018, CC BY-SA 4.0

Handling the Challenges

Nonprofit organizations that deal with groups that are at risk healthwise should take this into consideration when planning any group function. This includes children, elderly, and the immunocompromised. For example, if your nonprofit is working with children, coordinate a plan of action with the school. If you plan on holding any events, check with all suppliers to make sure that they are able to hold up their end of contract. There is a greater risk that donors and event attendees will stay home if you do have event planned. Just remember, people may be too concerned with the present and not be thinking about the future. This makes fundraising a tough sell.

Sick Leave Policy

Go over what policies your organization has for sick leave. Does your staff have adequate time off in order to recover? If you cover staff under your organization’s health insurance plan, contact your insurance agent to figure out what is covered and what is not. You should also find out from the insurance company how to keep your staff healthy.

Staff Finances Hardships

Make sure your staff is able to handle the financial burden if they are out of work for an extended amount of time. What about if schools close; how will childcare be taken care of? Travel is another consideration. The CDC recommends that if travel is not essential, you should postpone or cancel work trips.

Remote Work Policy

Your organization should review the employee remote work policy. If no policy is in place, there is no time like the present to come up with one. You will want to determine how each department’s staff will function remotely.

Projects which you are able to postpone and involve groups, you should take a rain check. The Harvard Business Review breaks down how to figure out remote work policies, 

Note which roles and duties: 1) Can be done, even partially, without a physical presence in the workplace, 2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, outside of the physical office, and 3) Not sure.

Cali Williams Yost, What’s Your Companies Emergency Remote-Work Plan?,, February 28, 2020

Remote Communications Policy

You might need to adjust communications in the event of staff working remotely. The same article goes on to say,

This communications plan needs to outline: how to reach everybody (e.g., all contact information in one place, primary communication channels clarified — email, IM, Slack, etc.); how employees are expected to respond to customers; and how and when teams will coordinate and meet.

Cali Williams Yost, What’s Your Companies Emergency Remote-Work Plan?,, February 28, 2020

Yes, There Are Opportunities Too

Document and save the plans and actions that you take during this time for future reference when health-related outbreaks like this occur. Be prepared!

Find a way for your organization to benefit the public during this time, to help alleviate hardships that have occurred due to the COVID-19. An example would be lobbying for health care. Address the issues going on today.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy is constantly updating their webpage on the current philanthropic effort to help mitigate COVID-19’s impact. They have a list of what the critical needs to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are. While you might think that the need for help is primarily from organizations that are in the medical field, there are many ways nonprofit organizations of all kinds can help. Your organization could strive to find a novel solution to needs that arise, partner with another organization that is on the front line, or even fundraise on the behalf of COVID-19 research. Organizations dealing with hygiene and water in particular are non-medical organizations that can help tremendously.

The Council on Foundations (CoF) has the ability to help nonprofits that are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak with emergency charitable grants for immediate relief, short-term recovery, and long-term rebuilding. This includes both domestic and international efforts in response to disasters.

Final Thought

Public health issues have a severe impact on the amount of work your organization is able do. Figure out your priorities for what needs immediate action. Examine how your organization will function in various scenarios. You can easily take this planning and adjust it for similar situations in the future. Stay up-to-date on COVID-19 and official guidance by visiting the CDC website.

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