By Tracy Mazur

There is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Covid-19 pandemic and everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. A year ago, everyone scrambled to accommodate an unknown stretch of remote, work-from-home shut-down wherever possible and modified how we conduct business to allow for less contact while still getting everything done.

Hardly anyone was prepared, because who really thinks of contingency planning for a once in a lifetime event. How do you even begin to plan for these events, let alone some of the more frequent but less disastrous events that cause chaos in your nonprofit.

The first, most intuitive step is to sit down, preferably in a pessimistic, “the world might end” mood, and make a list of everything that can go wrong. If you have any kind of overactive imagination like mine, that list will be very long and include quite a few things that are highly unlikely to happen but included because contingency planning means covering all your bases.

If you give up after seeing a huge list of possible failures, you aren’t alone. It’s overwhelming, and trying to pick where to start is possibly harder than actually putting into place something to minimize the fallout if these failure scenarios come to fruition.

Do not despair! There is a tool to help you organize your fail-list and prioritize what you should have a contingency for and what you can put at the bottom of the list. Put that scary list aside and work on a different approach that is less intimidating.


In the realms of process improvement and quality, especially Six Sigma, we use a tool called a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). Creating an FMEA table allows you to identify nearly everything that could go wrong, then start to prioritize what are the real problems, which is one of the more difficult parts of contingency planning. You accomplish this in the chart by assigning scores to not just how bad the failure can be, but how often it happens and what your current systems are to catch it. The output of an FMEA is very similar to an action register; you can take the final list, sort it, and begin working on measures to reduce the possibility or frequency of failures.

When making an FMEA you can make it as broad or focused as needed. Since the columns of information stay consistent, you can combine charts into a larger chart, or make focused ones that concentrate on various areas of your organization. For example, you can have an FMEA specifically covering your web portal, one covering your administration and staff, one for events, and so on. FMEAs apply to multiple industries, so keep that in mind when looking for information online. You will see some geared towards manufacturing and design as well as some that focus completely on process.

Getting started with an FMEA

What tools do you need to begin? First you need the people who know what is going on with this information. Get your SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) all in a room or a Zoom together. You could do this remotely by passing the chart around with some information prefilled, but you will get better results by combining the creation of this chart with brainstorming with your SMEs. I hate to use a buzzword, but the synergy you get when people who know the product or process getting together to really drill down and talk about these things is invaluable.

Outside of that I recommend using a spreadsheet to record the information if possible. Whiteboarding is great, but part of this process usually involves backtracking and adding in more items. This gets messy with a whiteboard, whereas a projector and laptop (or shared Zoom screen) showing a spreadsheet makes adding in additional rows much easier and neater. And it’s more efficient, no transcribing needed later, just share the file with everyone when you are done.

What else should you keep in mind when it comes to creating an FMEA? Customization and continuing to use it. There will be areas we discuss further along that are best when customized to the needs of your organization. When we run into those, go crazy. Make them fit your needs: it’s okay to break out of the templates you find online for these. And continue to use this. Finishing an FMEA is not the end, it is the beginning. Every line on this could be resolved with one quick fix or become a large project in and of itself. But the key is to take what you find from completing the FMEA and find ways to make failure less possible. Ideally you would revisit the FMEA on a regular basis and update accordingly, changing rankings based on new technology your organization has implemented or adding new functions (and possible failures) to the list.

End of Part 1

We are going to stop here and create an example table in our next article. The internet is a chock-full of good information about the entire FMEA process, but because it is a tool used across many varied industries, some of the information can be technical or downright intimidating. With that in mind, the next article will give you a simplified and easy-to-follow approach to using this tool. After reading through and becoming familiar with the basics, I do recommend further research for more ideas to use an FMEA to its utmost without making it so complicated that it becomes more work than it’s worth.

Read Part 2 here