Newsmaker extra: Tales of the unexpected - Telling us over here howthey do it over there

Stephen Cook

Melanie Herman Executive director, Non-profit Risk Management Center.

After a hard day listening to a hundred conference delegates from UK charities chewing over insurance premiums, litigation and the fear of litigation, Melanie Herman is definitely impressed.

"There is a tremendous awareness of the whole risk-management process," says Herman, who runs the Non-profit Risk Management Center in Washington DC. "Back home it's rare to find a non-profit leader who would know about using a risk register, for example."

All the same, she thinks the UK would benefit from an organisation such as hers, which offers free and impartial advice to non-profits on risk-management questions.

"It's a safe place you can go to ask questions," she says. "If you call your insurance broker to say you might have done something dumb, the potential financial implications are huge. Instead, people can ask us how to proceed and we can offer advice based on our experience.

"They're not beholden to us, and we don't sell insurance."

The organisation was started with federal funds in 1990 when the US insurance market was hard on charities and there were worries about the risks of the rapidly expanding AmeriCorps volunteering scheme.

Since 1999 it has financed itself by selling consultancy, books and software, topped up with grants and even donations from insurance companies. It also holds conferences, and Herman is an international speaker.

She feels the strongest response to her presentation at the Third Sector risk-management conference last week came when she talked about evaluating risk management in the light of the organisation's mission.

"It's such an important message," she says. "You must use the sieve of practicality and reasonableness. There are few areas where you're required to do risk management, and you should only do it when it lifts up your mission rather than taking it down.

"We use the mantra of 'do what you can, when you can'. If it's too expensive, too hard, takes too long or is impractical, don't do it."

Another message that goes down well is that there is a spectrum of risk, ranging from the 'unknown but knowable' to the 'unknown and unknowable', and that it's best to concentrate on the former.

Herman, formerly a legal aid lawyer, livens up her presentation with anecdotes and starts with a Dilbert cartoon strip - in the first frame, a staff member tells a manager: "As requested, I did a risk management assessment." In the second she says: "I concluded that there was no risk of any management" ; and when she asks if the manager has anything to add, he responds: "I'll get back to you."

Herman's best anecdote is about a volunteer helper showing some girl guides round a Los Angeles museum of modern art and coming to a work called Car Crash, in which a couple are "necking" in the back of a wreck.

The volunteer used this as an excuse for a lecture on family planning, leading to complaints from mothers and the decision to sack the volunteer.

But the volunteer was a friend of the editor of the Los Angeles Times, which threatened to run a story - so the volunteer was taken back.

"This is a good example of what not to do," says Herman. She says you should involve everyone in your organisation in evolving detailed policies, and "you have to tell people over and over how not to do things".

She signs off by handing out a business card. On one side, in red, it has the seven deadly sins of risk management ("1. Stepping over the banana peel"); on the other, in yellow, are seven lively virtues: delegates queue like children for sweets.

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