We’ve heard from both sides of the governance/management relationship in the past couple of weeks, from board members unsure of how best to be supportive as well as frustrated executive directors who have a) heard nothing from their board or b) feel the line between governance to management is getting crossed. In a time when we need to be making hard decisions and making them relatively quickly, it’s no surprise that tensions may arise.
First off, let us all remember that this is new territory for all of us. Yes, there have been national emergencies in the past, but the COVID-19 pandemic brings unique challenges. Over-communication and empathy are required both ways. Given the board’s five roles and responsibilities, these are the five topics boards should be engaged in and thinking about right now:
Financial Forecasting and Scenario Planning
Boards need to inform and understand the organization’s current financial health and the financial road ahead over the next 12 months. Informing and intersecting with financial forecasting, board members should also be informed about operational risks and vulnerabilities to help guide scenario planning. Two questions that are helpful to ask here are a) what are our biggest risks? and b) what is our risk tolerance? Anticipating future needs and situations will inform how you decide to spend any reserves should you have them. The latter will help you get a pulse on how people are feeling and leverage the diversity of your board’s perspectives to gauge the pros and cons of each. Even though things are moving fast, it’s still important to center how your decisions now will affect your staff and community from an equity perspective. These conversations will help guide decisions that management ends up making.
How to be an Ambassador During a Crisis
Board members should be asking how they can remain in contact with key stakeholders and what messaging they should be using. This can include offering to help deliver those messages if they have strong connections with funders or other stakeholders to sharing out resources or calls for volunteering or funding needs via social media.
It’s also important here to ask where your board may need to scale back. What is your capacity as individual board member? We know that many nonprofit board members are nonprofit leaders themselves or facing similarly stressful circumstances. While your board may decide it needs to scale back (and probably it should), boards cannot stop governing. By all means, cut back from 10 priorities to one; take care of your own emotional, mental, and spiritual health; but have a conversation about what you as a governing body will still be able to commit to and make sure the executive director and staff are still getting the support they need.
A crisis will require boards to use governance muscles that perhaps you don’t exercise as much. For example, you may need or want to develop a succession plan, create an informal advisory board, or advise or create human resources policies. Be clear on what decisions you as a board need to make and where your role is to inform management’s decision-making. Do be sure you’re planning for the worst-case scenario and have an emergency succession plan in place for your chief executive. We created this narrative guide to help executive directors think through the different organizational capacity areas.
To help clarify roles, BoardSource has many timely, helpful resources for boards and nonprofit leaders, including this post detailing the board’s role in a crisis. One key point to pull from this resource (although we recommend reading the entire post) is that “while the CEO is responsible for operational planning and executing these plans, the board should be reviewing and responding to the organization’s strategy, and providing feedback.”
If you have a board chair whose term is about to end but you want to maintain some continuity of leadership during this time, you could ask them to join meetings the new board chair is a part of or support them in setting agendas, etc. They could also stay on in an advisory role. The departing chair’s influence and wisdom do not need to leave because they are no longer in an officer position.
Strategy for Long-Term Recovery
If your nonprofit has been severely affected by COVID-19, or you anticipate longer-term setbacks, what is the strategy for recovering? Should the organization plan for a full recovery? Could your mission be served by merging with another organization? Are there new services or delivery models that you need to start thinking about now, and what other goals or programs need to take a backseat? These are hard conversations, to be sure, but this is where your leadership as a board is needed most. And, your strategy conversations need to go hand-in-hand with your financial forecasting and scenario planning. So, while you currently must deal with immediate needs, know that you also need to be aware of how today’s decisions will impact your future direction as well. Your strategy conversations need to go hand-in-hand with your financial forecasting and scenario planning.
Tend to the Team
Check in with the team, especially the CEO. Many nonprofit leaders are experiencing incredible stress and anxiety right now, trying to balance the health and well-being of their staff, their clients, and often their kids. Maybe while also co-working with their partner and checking in on elderly parents and learning how unemployment insurance works. Hopefully by now you’ve given them a phone call, especially if you’re the board chair, but also be careful not to overwhelm them with every new COVID-19 resource you come upon.
If you have other specific questions, do check out BoardSource’s Q&A page to see if they’ve answered it there, but we’re also here to help. Feel free to reach out to any of our strategic services consultants.
Resources for Boards
How Nonprofits and Board Members Can Respond to COVID-19: Resources, Q&As, and Facebook Live Events with BoardSource
What Nonprofit Board Members Should Be Doing Right Now to Address the COVID-19 Situation (BoardSource)
What Your Nonprofit Can Do Now to Reduce Risks Relating to COVID-19 (Coronavirus) by Ted Bilich (Risk Alternatives)
7 Things Your Board Can Do to Lead in Times of Crisis by Tom Iselin (Bloomerang)
Emergency Succession Plan Template for Executive Directors (Propel Nonprofits)
Governing In a Time of Crisis: 10 Action Items for Boards (Propel Nonprofits)
Photo: Marcus Spiske