BCLTA Governance Workbook: Organizational Continuity – Times of risk and crisis

It is the responsibility of the board to provide oversight of and to ensure organizational continuity. An important part of doing this is being prepared for times of risk and crisis.

The most effective way for a board to reduce risk and to be prepared for a crisis is to hire a library director  who has the skills and knowledge required for managing the operations of the organization and for executing the board’s strategic direction. The board then needs to support the library director with their continuing professional development and role satisfaction.

In general, a board that can govern well through a crisis and is able to effectively mitigate risk by working with the library director as a governance team, is a board that has taken responsibility for their board learning and development. Learning and development includes governance practices, strategic thinking and oversight (organizational knowledge, assessment, fiduciary responsibility), and team dynamics. This learning and development will result in a board that understands their governance role and the role of the public library in the community and is able to work with the library director as a governance team leading the public library to a future of sustained growth, relevance, and secure funding.

The board is responsible for ensuring that potential strategic, reputational, and financial risks have been identified. Risks might include the age and condition of the facility, staff recruitment and succession, funding, fire, flood, extreme weather, pandemics and reputational damage through stories of unpopular staffing or service decisions, public perceptions of safe space, legal disputes, or social media mistakes.


A crisis is a risk that has become an actual event. The risk of a forest fire that may result in evacuations and destruction becomes a crisis when everyone is packing their go-bags and leaving town. The risk of harm to the organization’s reputation and finances becomes a crisis when a funder pulls their support because they are concerned about a leadership gap at the library due to high turn-over or lack of sucesssion planning.

The following explanation of a crisis, from  Osler’s, The Board’s Role in Crisis Management (2016), is helpful and highly applicable to the work of BC public library boards.

Some crises can be foreseen, others not. Some crises arise suddenly and are on a large scale, like terrorist events, natural disasters, computer hacking/ransomware, or public health outbreaks. Others may be narrower in scope but equally sudden, for example, the unexpected illness or death of an organization’s leader, or a damaging video or comment posted to social media by an employee or a customer involving the organization’s business practices or ethics, or those of its leading personnel.” (Osler, Board’s Role in Crisis Management, 2016, p. 5)

While BC public library boards have a fiduciary responsibility that in its execution may look a little different from corporate or not-for-profit boards, the following from Osler may be of particular interest when your board is discussing risk and crisis management.

  • Challenges to responding to a crisis such as being informed and the timeliness of information (p.17)
  • Role of the board is regards to establishing policies, have methods of organizational assessment, and supporting operational leadership (p.18)
  • The importance of post crisis assessment (p. 21)
  • Key steps for managing a potential crisis (p. 23)

Another recommended resource is the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada 20 Questions Not-For-Profit Board Directors Should Ask About Overseeing Management of Risk

This trusted resource is available from the CPA website as a PDF for $25 and the following from the website is a list of what to expect in the document:

  • how the board can prepare itself to oversee risk and establish risk policies
  • what the board should expect from staff in terms of assessing risks and developing risk strategies
  • what information you should expect to get from staff on risk performance and what they’ve learned from crises
  • how the board should measure its own effectiveness in overseeing risk management.
  • a sample risk register
  • suggested insurances your organization may require
  • a continuity planning list
  • a sample risk register
  • suggested insurances your organization may require
  • a continuity planning list

Working with the library director, the board is responsible for being aware of and mitigating areas of risk and for being prepared and able to govern through a crisis. The library director is also responsible for identifying and managing risk and for providing operational and governance leadership through a crisis. Each has unique roles and responsibilities and come together to form an effective governance team.

Indicators of an Effective Board

The following are indicators of effective board oversight of governing through risk and crisis:

  • The board, working with the library director, has done a risk audit and has ensured that policies, such as human resources and finance, are current for mitigating nd for supporting the organization through a crisis.
  • The board has contingency plans for emergencies, such as how to operate in the absence of a library director or during a natural disaster.
  • The board has a plan for how to operate in the absence of the board chair.
  • The board has ensured that all insurance policies carried by the organization provide adequate coverage at a competitive price.

Avoid Developing a Risk-Averse Culture

Risk assessments and crisis plans are important to organizational continuity. As well, the board needs to approach this work responsibly to avoid developing a risk-averse culture. Mitigating risk and being prepared for crisis is not the same as avoiding risk. Public libraries need to take measured risks to innovate, evolve, and meet the growing information, technological, and creative needs of the communities they serve.