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The Southwest Airlines Flight Fiasco: Lessons For Your Nonprofit

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It started December 21st with a bitter winter storm: Winds, snow, and record cold temperatures swept across the United States and Canada. Thanks to a combination of the storm’s effects and outdated technology, Southwest Airlines (SWA) started canceling the first of what would become almost 17,000 flights over the next week or so.

While you may never find yourself in a crisis of this magnitude at your nonprofit, you can learn from Southwest’s mistakes and use those lessons to prepare for a potential disaster. Keep reading to learn more.

What happened?

Here are a few things that most likely contributed to the fiasco:

  • A winter storm and just plain lousy luck (can’t control that timing!)
  • Outdated software and insufficient and outdated processes
  • Lack of an effective rapid response plan and/or contingency plan
  • A communications disaster that left customers and staff without information or help for hours and even days at a time

What can you do to avoid a situation like this or mitigate the possible negative outcomes if you can’t? Let’s look at the following lessons.  

Lesson One: You need the right software and processes in place.

Infrastructure includes more than just the tools you use. It also includes the processes you have in place that define who uses those tools to do what and when. 

You need the right software and processes in place—not just when it matters, but before it matters. You’ll need to make decisions as soon as possible—as many as possible before the crisis—so you don’t waste valuable time figuring out what happens next. 

First, look at the technology you use and the processes you have in place. Identify your technical gaps and software needs. 

For example, is all of your data stored in one place? Can you easily pull reports of donors who may be affected by an event or unforeseen error? Do you have a way to communicate with donors quickly?  

Once you identify the gaps you have and research the tools you can use to fill those gaps, update your budget and get approval to move forward with these purchases

Lesson Two: You need to anticipate the challenges that could affect your organization and plan accordingly.

Look at the factors that contributed to Southwest’s predicament. Now think about your nonprofit and what you could face in the future. 

When you anticipate challenges, think about cause-specific and generic ones. Here are a few examples of challenges your organization may face: 

  • A winter storm or other climate disaster impacts your local community
  • Another kind of disaster, like an electrical blackout, affects your ability to carry out your mission or process donations.
  • A terrorist attack, either domestic or elsewhere, occurs and you don’t feel like it’s an appropriate time to ask for donations, which impacts your revenue goals.
  • A policy goes into effect that changes how you work or raise funds. 

Each of these will require a different set of precautions and processes, and you’ll want to have those defined long before you need to react to one or more of them.

Lesson Three: You need a contingency plan.

So, you’ve got your tools in place. You’ve anticipated the challenges that may affect your organization. What now? It’s time to write out and practice implementing a plan to make sure you’re prepared for those challenges. 

When thinking about your plan, think about who has to work together and what they have to accomplish. For example, your legal, leadership, and communications staff must be able to do their work independently while also working to find a way to get to a point where they can work collaboratively again. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Do you have a rapid response or crisis communications plan?
  • Does it include CEO and legal representatives? Do they know what to do and how to respond immediately?
  • Do all team members know what is expected of them? Can they do those things immediately? If not, do they know who to go to for support?
  • Has this plan been communicated to all relevant parties?
  • How will your crisis team get in touch with each other to draft statements and reply to inquiries? Do you have sample statements and replies ready to go?
  • How will you get in touch with your donors and supporters? Think about immediate communications and ones you’d send over the next few days and weeks depending on the scope of the challenge.
  • How will your donors and supporters get in touch with you? Do you have a form or information on your website that shares this information? Who will respond to their inquiries? 

No matter the size of your nonprofit or the challenge at hand, you can put together an effective contingency plan when you plan ahead.


You can’t know for sure what challenges your nonprofit will face in the future, but you can plan for the challenges you might face. 

Invest in updated software and tools that will allow you to work effectively, plan ahead, and know your contingencies. Just taking a moment to ask yourself these questions puts you ahead of the game!

If you’re ready to arm your organization with a fully developed crisis communication plan, but you’re not sure where to start, look no further! You can download a free nonprofit crisis communications plan template.

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