Check-Up Clinic: Advice for Boards

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Working With Your Board During the Pandemic

based on a virtual forum video series

Amid the Covid-19 crisis, nonprofit leaders and staff members need help from their board members more than ever. But it can be hard for executives to know how to involve trustees in emergency-response efforts while also ensuring that their organizations stay afloat, supporters stay informed, and fundraising proceeds.

To help you activate your board during this challenging time, the Chronicle held a live online forum with two experts on nonprofit governance: Kate Barr, president of Propel Nonprofits, and Anne Wallestad, president of BoardSource.

Trustee engagement varies widely, Wallestad said. Some boards have “gone AWOL” and are not responding at all while others are panicking and may try to get involved in ways that are not helpful. However, organizations that in recent years have invested in building strong relationships among executives and trustees, cultivating leadership skills on the board, and defining clear roles for trustees and staff members are now reaping the dividends of trustee responsiveness and trust, she said.

The most helpful boards right now are those that are flexible and willing to learn and adapt as the situation evolves rather than getting paralyzed by the need for perfection, Barr said.

Clearly Communicate the Help You Need

To get the most out of your board, identify where their involvement will make the biggest difference and ask for help only with those areas, Wallestad said, and be specific: “The fastest way to get a group of people to do nothing is to ask all of them to do it,” she said. Instead, ask individual trustees to contribute in specific ways that relate to their expertise.

Clarify the specific role you are asking board members to play when seeking their help, she said. For example, if you are just looking for advice or feedback, rather than asking them to discuss something with the rest of the board or to make a decision, make that clear.

Some well-intentioned trustees may offer help you don’t need or can’t focus on in this crisis, the experts said. If that happens, outline your priorities and explain that most everything else will need to wait for now because you are in “crisis and triage mode,” Wallestad said.

On the other hand, if only a few of your trustees are engaged, focus your outreach on them and ask them to exert some “peer pressure” to activate others, Barr said. “Look for where the engagement is possible and really lean in there with the executive committee, the board chair, the finance committee — wherever you need the work to be done,” she said.

Put Equity at the Center of Your Decision Making

As you tackle difficult questions such as where to make budget cuts, be intentional about protecting progress you’ve made on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion with your staff, board, and community.

If the organization’s mission and values are at the center of your response, and equity has become one of your values, this is a chance not only to preserve but to elevate your efforts on that front, Barr said.

“We have an opportunity in the midst of all the overwhelming decisions to make to actually accelerate this work, not to go back to the old model but find an entirely new something — and now’s the time,” she said.

Engage Trustees in Fundraising

If your nonprofit is on the front lines of the pandemic, encourage your board members to “shout from the rooftops” about the organization’s work and how people in their networks can help, Wallestad said.

Groups that are not directly linked to the response should focus on reaching out to longstanding donors and consider how individual board members can help with that, she said.

Don’t be shy about engaging trustees as donors, too, Wallestad added. In fact, think of them as your “first core audience” from which to raise money.

“Hopefully this is a moment where every board member is seeing how incredibly important their individual investment is,” she said. “If they’re not, I’d be asking the question of the board as a whole and individual board members, ‘If not now, when?’?”

Be thoughtful about how you ask trustees to help with fundraising or to give, she added. Consider what personal or professional challenges they may be facing and ensure that your request is appropriate and respectful given the circumstances. For example, invite them to give within their means at this moment rather than pushing for a certain amount.

Be Sensitive to Members Who Are Struggling

Realize that some trustees may need to reduce their involvement or step back for now to focus on their health, their family, their business, or some other aspect of their life, Barr said, and that should be OK. “Just as the executive director has to be clear about [saying], ‘Here’s what I’m doing,’ board members need the ability to say that same thing,” she said. To accommodate the needs of those who are struggling, Wallestad said, figure out where their participation is essential and only ask for their participation in those areas.

The experts also discussed how to handle an executive transition that is happening now, whether to put board recruitment on hold, tips for approaching strategic planning amid uncertainty about the future, and how to best involve trustees in seeking financial assistance from the federal government, among other topics.

Sign up to watch the one-hour discussion to learn more.


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