Two Ways to Avoid a DNC-Style Disaster...And Do More Good in the World

There’s a snowstorm happening outside, and I am curled up with my pup and thinking about the incredible New York Times article on the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

The entire article is by turns fascinating and horrifying. It’s clear that bad decisions were made at every turn by people at every level. But I work with nonprofit organizations, and the failures at the DNC are all-too-familiar.

Now, I’ve never worked with the DNC, and other than being a casual West Coast observer, am not familiar with the specifics of how they operate. But I have spent a lot of time with dozens of nonprofit groups from across the U.S. and around the world, and my consulting practice has given me a window into how far too many of them conduct their business day-to-day.

So I’m not writing this to condemn an organization I haven’t seen first-hand and up close. And I’m not going to comment on cyber-security, other than to say you should probably get some, like, yesterday.

But I do want to weigh in on a couple of key things that any nonprofit can do right now to help avoid making the same mistakes that caused the DNC to take months to respond to the attack on their servers.

1)   Break Down Organizational Silos.

The most effective organizations I work with are all up in each other’s business. Comms knows what Fundraising is up to. Fundraising actively collaborates with Program Development. Contractors touch base with every team. Executive leadership is kept in the loop on all of it.

And yes, this requires meetings. Look, I hate meetings. Too often, they feel like an interruption from the actual work I’m supposed to do. But that’s because most organizations don’t have enough of the right kind of meetings.

The contractor working on the DNC’s tech support who initially took the call from the FBI acted in a fairly typical manner: he wrote a memo, probably in the form of an email, which he sent to whoever was supervising him. But imagine if he’d asked for a quick meeting to discuss the FBI’s call. E-mails can – and do – get ignored all the time. I am a pretty good email responder, but more often than I’d like, I set them aside, intending to answer later, only to forget about them completely. But when a client or colleague phones me, I have to respond right then.

Lots of orgs, especially in these days of telecommuting, have weekly status meetings and monthly/quarterly big picture meetings, saving other communications for email. But quick “hallway meetings” – either in-person, let’s-convene-in-the-hallway, or via telephone or Skype – can be amazingly effective at getting information out and acted upon before it becomes front page news.

More importantly, all this face-time keeps people connected and communicating.

2)   Put a Concrete Value on Excellence.

Nonprofits are strapped for cash. That’s not new. But you have to invest in the people who keep your mission going: the professionals who get your important work done. Way too many nonprofits pay peanuts, especially compared to the private sector, and then act surprised when the people they hire turn out to be inexperienced, mildly incompetent or lazy…or they suffer from burnout just as they’ve got the job down.

Contractors have become a handy way to save money and get quality people in the door. But if you want to use contractors, let them into your fold. Include them in team meetings, send them reports, give them access to your insiders.

When they feel like a part of the team and not just a skill-for-hire, they’re more likely to go the extra mile for you…or, you know, let you know that the FBI called.


I don’t know that any of this would have made a difference in the DNC’s case, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

The best organizations I have worked with do these two things. What’s more, they are committed to a culture of openness, collaboration and excellence and keep a vigilant watch out for the complacency that can come with success and growth. 

And ultimately, when your organization is firing on all cylinders, you can not only avoid disasters like the DNC faced -- you can focus more energy on the good you're doing in the world.