The Board’s Role in Times of Organizational Crisis

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by F. Duke Haddad

I have served on many boards during my long nonprofit career. I have also assisted boards with advice, counsel and guidance from a staff, volunteer and consultant perspective. Being a volunteer board member has helped me understand how to work with nonprofit boards from the inside out and outside in. With respect to one organization, I served for several years as either a board member or president of that board.

On this board, you typically serve two terms of three years each. After my term expired three years ago, I felt it was time to let others step up and assume a leadership role. Because of COVID-19 and its fallout, the nomination committee of this organization, which has approached me every year since I left to serve again, asked me to once again join the board. This time the ask had a renewed sense of urgency. I felt I had to rejoin the board to assist at this time of crisis, as it was my call to duty.

An article by Goodwin Law points out that nonprofit board members play an important role in the oversight and fulfillment of an organizational mission. These members are especially important in times of crisis. Board members have the duty of care (making well-informed decisions), duty of loyalty (act in the best interest of the organization) and duty of obedience (further the organization’s mission) they serve.

Board members must engage in communication, questioning, risk-taking, supporting, addressing funding needs, considering changes and making wise asset use decisions. Boards need to maintain adequate records, comply with organizational mission, maintain respect, conduct succession planning, work with advisors and engage in self evaluations.

According to Venable, nonprofits stand to play central roles in local and national efforts to support and assist those in need during COVID-19. The individuals serving on nonprofit boards have the ultimate responsibility for critical organizational decisions. To meet these responsibilities, boards must ensure that governing documents and governance practices are up to date.

Board members must remain actively engaged and pay extra care to ensure they carry out their duties. Boards must examine all relevant information and be ready to engage non-board members with special expertise if needed. Because of timing of issues, a board should consider a broad delegation of authority to its executive committee to address emergency or sudden problems. While not dealing in day-to-day issues, the board’s executive committee should remain available to management if needed. A board must also assist in considering economic steps as finances could be adversely affected.

BoardSource states that exceptional board governance is needed more than ever in this pandemic. Boards also need good governance practices to help organizational communities work through crisis situations.

BoardSource also states that a board’s role is to take the lead on overseeing the organization through a culture of inquiry during difficult times. This culture provides an environment where board members listen to a variety of points of view and information-sharing. They express individual concerns before reaching a collective decision. Boards in a period of crisis must share the concepts of trust, information sharing, teamwork and dialogue.

A key component of trust for your board relates to the relationship between board chair and chief executive. Boards need information that is clear and concise to help prepare for productive board meetings. Tough times points out the need for board members to be members of a team and work together. Open dialogue between the board and the CEO about plans to address the pandemic is critical.

Many nonprofits provide critical services for people who are greatly affected by the pandemic crisis. Many organizations do not have an adequate game plan for dealing with the pandemic. They are looking to their boards to provide support in a variety of ways. The most important thing a board member can do, according to Cause Strategy Partners, is to show up. As a board member you need to reach out and encourage the CEO, plus be ready for quick counsel. Board members need to call their legislators and encourage relief packages. They should also be encouraged to make a personal donation to their organization and encourage personal networks to do the same.

Nonprofit board members have a key role to play in today’s crisis. Step up to serve and seek to help in any way possible. Determine the status and impact of the pandemic on your organization, and help provide solutions. Your talent is needed more than ever before. Make a personal decision to step up and give your organization the additional attention it needs and deserves. Your organization requires your time, talent and treasure more than ever before. Make your service count!

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