The current pandemic is unsettling all of us – our families, our communities and our workplaces. At non-profit organizations, staff is balancing disrupted personal and family lives with the disruption of their work places. This is happening while also meeting the needs of communities and stakeholders experiencing the same pressures. Many non-profit organizations are “flying the plane as they build it” by developing new structures and procedures to meet their missions – while navigating remote work, and increased family responsibilities. a nonprofit board, usually focused on governance and policy, now has a new, and important role in helping their organizations, and staff meet the new demands, and challenges of our work.
As we’ve said before, the Board of Directors sets the tone for your organization’s success. There are nine primary responsibilities of the board, including setting direction, making strategy and policy decisions, overseeing organizational performance, and providing accountability for the Executive Director. Those responsibilities do not go away just because we’re living through a crisis. However, Board directors have an opportunity to provide the extra support that your organizations, and staff, need right now.
The pandemic is effecting every organization differently, whether because of location, size, programs or mission. Some organizations are large and well-established, others may be smaller, newer or not as well funded. All of them are trying to manage changing budgets, retain and support staff and discover new methods of program delivery. Demand for services, and funding, may be disappearing for some, while others may find the need in their communities growing exponentially. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what a Board should do now, there are areas where all Boards should be taking a look and ensuring things are going smoothly.
It is widely recognized that the relationship between the executive director and the Board chair is one of the most important indicators of a non-profit organization’s success. Like any other relationship, this one may be tested during difficult times, so extra efforts to communicate clearly, check-in frequently, and listen are good practice.
It’s a hard needle to thread, but a board needs to support the management team’s crisis response without stepping on its operating role. Showing support can be as simple as acknowledging and expressing appreciation to the staff. If performance begins to suffer under pressure, the Board still has a fiduciary obligation to see that the mission is served and long-term stakeholder interests are protected. Board chairs and directors who are empathetic and truthful, offering candid advice and personal support can still do their jobs, while at the same time enabling staff to continue to do theirs.
Strategic Plan, Mission, and Policy
During normal times, the Board should be holding leadership responsible for developing and following the strategic plan. This is still true during a crisis, but the Board may also need to provide guidance and support for temporary changes in a strategic plan. A strategic plan can provide vision and direction when the future is unclear, but flexibility and creativity will be needed to meet immediate challenges, and opportunities until we finally settle on our “new normal.”
We are living through an unusual economic time. Boards need to be aware of the current economic climate, and be available to help organizations weather the storm. For example, offering to accompany your executive director to a meeting with a grant-making project manager, or large donor, can be a powerful show of stability and commitment.
Board chairs and directors need to partner with staff in developing financial plans and strategies. During lock-down, many experts and consultants are offering on-line trainings and webinars that are inexpensive or free, and do not require travel. This is a great time to gain a more sophisticated understanding of non-profit finances and development.
As stewards of an organization, a nonprofit Board needs to be aware of the risk this crisis poses. The Board sets the tone for dealing with the risk, and ensuring that proper processes are in place to keep the organization safe and ready to act when a situation demands it. The Board will also need to assess the future impact that COVID-19 may have on the organization, staff, the community the organization serves, and the economy in general. Understanding current insurance policies and risk mitigation practices you have in place is a key component of risk assessment. Working with the executive director to develop contingency plans that take staff illness and shortages into consideration as well as reduced funding can make hard decisions easier, when and if needed.
The Board needs to consider what and how the organization will communicate with staff, leaders, and the community it serves. A good starting point in crisis communication planning is a broad discussion between the board and CEO, centered on the questions such as:
- What information should the organization share with the public?
- Who will be the main point of communication? Is there a communication tree in place?
- Who is responsible for managing the crisis, and what are their duties?
Board members tend to join boards of organizations about which they care deeply. Being unsure of how to help can be anxiety provoking. Hopefully, having clear responsibilities for your Board will reduce anxiety for both board directors and staff, and help your organization meet today’s challenges while building towards the future.