Crisis Management in Civil Society—And What Companies Can Learn from It

To-do lists, check lists, shopping lists. Lists are a rather common part of everyday life—and they could be vital integration and administrative tools…

Lukas Löhlein / David Crvelin - 23. January 2023

Tips for practitioners

Crisis and catastrophe indicate uncertain, ever-changing situations that can have quite the impact on aid agencies. Such organizations may find value in certain tools and methods from the field of accounting, as these can render more manageable the complexity of the work that needs to be done. Notably, accounting goes far beyond merely collecting data. Rather, as has been proven in many studies, accounting tools split said data in measurable units, help standardize the overall process, and make organization efforts more transparent. To date, scholarship has chiefly focused on crisis management in longstanding, more established companies. A currently running research project, however, is doing the opposite and aims to examine the effects that accounting tools can have when implemented at less established volunteering groups. During the refugee crisis in 2015, these groups were the ones tackling the emerging challenges, coordinating efforts first on an individual and local level—and then as part of a whole civil society network.

Lists as coordination tools

Crisis management in non-profit agencies is characterized by a wide range of moving parts, including different volunteers, dynamic structures, and tasks that constantly change. The study “Commensuration by form: Lists and accounting in collective action networks” shows how seemingly innocuous written lists play a substantial role in making those moving parts much more manageable. For example, during the refugee crisis, lists made it possible to understand the volunteers’ individual abilities, motivations, availability, and resources, thereby helping volunteering groups organize their members into units and manage said resources appropriately. These initial attempts at categorizing and bringing standardization to these efforts became the first organizational structures to allow refugees access to the help they needed. Processes of counting, listing and classifying were thus the first steps in successful crisis management.

From concept to reality

The structures that had been established before the refugees reached the country faltered their first time out the gate: The volunteering groups’ offerings—no matter the hard work, passion, and attention to detail expended to bring them to fruition—did not always anticipate the real needs of the people. To address this discrepancy, lists developed into more standard accounting tools, albeit still in rudimentary form. This development, for instance, allowed for a more systematic way to assess the skill level of those teaching German to the refugees, i.e., by cross-checking the attendance lists of the different courses across all language groups. These and other self-developed accounting tools played a significant role in turning what were, at the start, rather fluid volunteering groups’  into complex, more established organizations that applied clear structures and responsibilities to the core concept of humanitarian aid.

Accounting tools and their momentum

With accounting having made such a major contribution to how the crisis was managed, there were also certain unintended side-effects. For example, the accounting tools partially led to a shortage of services for those who needed them, as they drove organizations to focus on what was measurable. Over time, only activities and services that could be accounted for by the control scheme in use—i.e., efforts that could be measured in a standardized way over a longer period—were the only ones retained. Efforts difficult to measure, such as personal support relationships between the refugees and the volunteers, were hardly ever considered. The study shows that once activity patterns are disregarded, they are also perpetually left behind by measurement and control systems.


Tips for practitioners

  • As a manager, recognize the advantages that controlling tools and methods can bring—and put them to good use! These tools allow us to take complex events (e.g., those during times of crisis), structure them in standardized units, and classify them properly, thereby rendering said event easier to manage.
  • Also be aware of the potential downsides to these tools and methods! They can sometimes gain their own momentum that can steer you in the wrong direction. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of resignation and frustration spreading among your employees.
  • It is your responsibility to find a balance between necessary standardization and creative flexibility. Only by doing so will you see continued success.

Literature reference and methodology

Using qualitative interviews and observations, this study analyzes the role played by basic management tools in the establishing and coordination of civil initiatives during the refugee crisis in Germany between 2015 and 2018.

Co-authors of the study

Professor Lukas Löhlein

Lukas Löhlein is a Professor of Controlling at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. In his research, Löhlein assumes an interdisciplinary, sociological perspective on matters relevant to corporate management and control.

Assistant Professor David Crvelin

David Crvelin is an Assistant Professor at the École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris (HEC). His research primarily focuses on management control and performance measurement practices in the sector of international development.