Check-Up Clinic: Advice for Boards

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10 Tips for Board Chairs to Help Nonprofits Survive and Thrive

by Jeff Jowdy

We are clearly in uncharted waters. Circumstances change daily. We hope that there will be more clarity and a return to what undoubtedly will be a new normal, soon. This crisis will have a lasting impact on how nonprofits function.

During these turbulent times, a nonprofit board chair can be a beacon of light, providing much needed steady leadership to the organization’s staff, board members, donors and those they serve.

Here are 10 tips on how board chairs can maximize their impact:

1. Be Sure the Board Is Highly Functioning

Make sure the board is highly functional before a crisis occurs. Now is the time to review every phase of the board engagement program. Discern any changes that need to be made — from roles and expectations, to the recruitment, orientation, ongoing education and evaluation of board members. This review also would include how the board functions, from committee structure to meetings.

2. Know the Buck Really Stops With the Board Chair

In good times, a board chair may not often think of their fiduciary responsibilities and the accountability that they have for holding a public trust. The chair is the supervisor of the CEO and is the person who must be most familiar with the CEO and the performance of the organization.

If there are problems with an organization’s staff leadership, programs, finances or culture, they will come to light eventually, and sooner in a time of crisis.

3. Ask the Right Questions

I learned years ago about the importance of asking the right questions — and especially the right follow-up questions. My mentor, Jerry Panas, was a master at asking just the right questions, not only to cultivate a relationship, but to size up a situation.

In ordinary times, a board chair might not be asking many questions. However, in a time like this, in partnership with the CEO, they certainly should. Since the chair is most familiar with the dynamics, they should also be the one anticipating the right questions.

4. Be Proactive and Adjust Timing Expectations

Be proactive. It not only looks terrible, but it is also wrong when boards fail to get in front of problems and merely react to circumstances. In a time where situations change daily — and sometimes several times a day — there is a new urgency in and increased expectations for the timing of responses. Boards must be able to make decisions and respond quickly as things change.

5. Keep Meetings Scheduled

Maintain the schedule of board and committee meetings. Maybe even increase the frequency of meetings during this crisis. When moving to virtual meetings, educate the board (if they are not already) about the platform and do everything (test and rehearse) to be sure that the meetings go off without a hitch. Also, consider adding some personal time for the board members to share and connect. Connecting will not happen naturally in a virtual setting without planning for it.

Don’t let social distancing be an excuse to cancel meetings. Be sure that the bylaws allow for virtual meetings and voting.

6. Communicate More Frequently With the Board

The board chair should increase their communication with the members. Coordinate this with information and messages sent by the CEO. The board chair should also be reaching out to board members personally to be sure that board members are doing well and to gauge how board members are enduring this crisis. Even with budget concerns, the board chair should soon be asking board members for their 2020 financial commitments and, where appropriate, asking them to fulfill those commitments earlier than they may have otherwise.

We recommend that board chairs personally reach out each month to their individual board members throughout this crisis. This outreach can be, at times, a quick call or text; and at other times, a lengthier conversation.

7. Increase the Visibility of the Chair

Several weeks ago, the queen of England shared a video message. It reminded me of wartime messages. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

While a board chair is the chief volunteer officer and leads the board that holds the organization’s assets in a trust, they are also, in a sense, a “figurehead.” They are the “king or queen.” They should have widespread respect and admiration.

8. Be Consistent, Real and Positive.

While we are encouraging our client CEOs to share regular donor video messages and updates, it is also the perfect time to engage the board chair in communications.

I don’t recall the queen talking about social distancing, wiping down surfaces, wearing a mask or sneezing etiquette. So, like the queen, the board chair can and should be one to build confidence by elevating the narrative, being candid and staying positive.

A board chair needs to remain consistent in their leadership. This is also the time to increase dialogue and engagement with all board members. Continue to engage board members in decision-making and, at the same time, drive decision-making in an appropriate and timely manner.

9. Ensure a Strategic Approach

What better time, when we are feeling some pain, to take a strategic approach to the organization? Be sure that there are policies in place to deal with times such as these because we will be in another crisis eventually.

For example, we always recommend that a client have at least three (and ideally six or more) months in operational reserves, plus an endowment. When an organization doesn’t meet the budget year after year, or struggles to do so, there is a problem that the board should look at before a crisis strikes.

So while things are challenging, look at the big picture: Don’t lose sight of the long term. Don’t engage in wishful thinking either. Be sure that staff leadership has updated plans, conducted a SWOT analysis and has contingency plans in place for various scenarios.

Accelerate high-level reporting for the board on key indicators — from finance to programs. Look at emerging issues and risks. Consider creating a dashboard of key indicators specific to these times. The board chair should have a candid discussion with the CEO and see if during this crisis, they need to rebalance their levels of intrusiveness vs. hands-off governance (i.e. board involved in loans, negotiations, etc.). Each board must find its new balance with management on how to increase its oversight to appropriate levels.

Chairs need to manage well-intentioned board members who are now especially eager to get involved in operations. Under normal circumstances, the line between governance and management should be clearly defined and understood. The board’s role should always be to support management in the right way, at the right time, without trying to manage the nonprofit.

10. Guard the Culture

The board chair sets the tone for an organization — even more so than the CEO. A smart CEO is looking to the chair for leads. The board chair should emulate the values of the organization, and their behavior should be of the highest integrity. The board chair can provide a moral center for the nonprofit in times of good and bad. Board chairs that act quickly to reinforce a strong, compassionate and positive culture with both internal and external stakeholders will make a lasting impact.

In good times, the role of the nonprofit board chair is essential. We believe it is the most significant role in a nonprofit. In challenging times, in partnership with the CEO, a board chair can step up in these 10 areas to help ensure that the nonprofit not only survives, but also thrives.

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