Disrupt & Innovate

Why NGOs need a reputation risk management strategy and how to develop one

9th April 2019 by Martin Cottingham

Reputation is a precious commodity for international NGOs, hard won and easily lost. A bad reputation can fundamentally undermine your support. A good reputation – with the public, with peer organisations and other key stakeholders – can boost your influence in the good times and protect your organisation when it comes under attack.

Islamic Relief knows this better than most. As a high-profile Muslim organisation in a polarised world, we sometimes come under attack from hate groups, from vested interests and from hostile media. Our reputation with donors, in the NGO community and among institutional funders has helped us not only to defend ourselves but also to continue to grow in income and impact.

Communications is a vital area for tackling reputational challenges. But good messaging needs to be accompanied by good practice: you have to ‘walk the talk’ if you are to maintain trust and integrity in the face of criticism.

It is no good having good policies on paper if they are not respected and implemented meaningfully throughout your organisation – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Every organisation is different but here are ten points of principle in reputation risk management, informed by Islamic Relief’s experience.

  1. Develop a reputation risk strategy and establish a reputation risk management team. Our team includes the CEO and representatives of legal, communications, finance and programmes.
  2. Identify the main risks you face and develop a plan of action to mitigate them.
  3. Map your key stakeholders – regulators, institutional funders, governments, financial institutions – and engage with them positively and openly. If you don’t make friends while the sun shines, it is much more difficult to do so in the eye of a storm.
  4. Plan for and practise different scenarios that might arise if your main identified risks materialise as major controversies.
  5. Manage the media and social media decisively and effectively. Prioritise correcting falsehoods and baseless allegations in credible mainstream outlets.
  6. Remain calm under pressure to ensure rational decision making.
  7. Reflect your values in how you communicate. Transparency and accountability are important. Say ‘sorry’ when there is something to apologise for but don’t accept the blame if you are not responsible. Communicate strongly who you really are and what you stand for in the case of misrepresentation.
  8. Identify and work with allies who have common cause. At Islamic Relief interfaith collaboration is in our DNA, and it has been a very positive experience for us to work with Christian and Jewish organisations who share common values but have similar negative prejudices to overcome.
  9. Strike an appropriate balance in internal communications, providing reassurance and clarity to staff without unnecessary detail.
  10. Last but not least, maintain a ‘business as usual’ mindset. Because nothing will reinforce a good reputation among those who matter quite like continuing to deliver on your core mission – in Islamic Relief’s case, the alleviation of poverty and suffering around the world.

Martin Cottingham

Director of External Relations and Advocacy

Islamic Relief Worldwide

Martin Cottingham has worked for the Islamic Relief federation for eight years, first as Media and Advocacy Manager and Head of Communications for Islamic Relief UK and since late 2016 as Director of External Relations and Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide. In a 22-year career working on international development and environmental issues, he has also held management positions in media, marketing and campaigns for Christian Aid, Oxfam and the Soil Association.