Boy are we in unsettled times! We face a potential pandemic and market downturn. As board members for nonprofit organizations, your responsibility is to make sure your organization is strong and able to provide its important services to your community. Your role is to ask good questions, act as a thought partner to your ED, support the decisions that are made, and help with fundraising. Your organization’s top priorities: assess risks, make a plan, and act now.
I live in the Seattle area so I’m on the front line of the virus in the US. Our health officials have asked companies to allow staff to work from home, some schools and school districts (including the University of Washington) have closed, we have been asked to not hold events with more than 10 people. And of course, everyone needs to follow procedures for good hygiene: handwashing, covering their mouths/nose when they sneeze and cough, and not going to work or school when sick.
Don’t Bury Your Head in the Sand
Most important, don’t do nothing. Too many people have their heads in the sand, saying “It won’t come here. It won’t impact us.” Or “It’s not as bad as the regular flu.” But Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases notes that there is an acceleration of cases. He urges everyone to be proactive.
Second, don’t panic. As a leader, your demeanor is important. This is a fluid situation – every day we learn more about how the virus is spreading and who is at elevated risk. Take decisive action. But be calm.
Make a Plan: Assess Risk, Identify Triggers to Take Action
As board leaders, work with your CEO and senior staff to evaluate the circumstances for your organization. Many will be facing a situation where demand for your services increases while you have a shortage of staff, difficulty getting supplies, and potential financial challenges.
Ask lots of questions. Work with staff to create a plan that identifies potential risks and triggers to make change. Don’t wait until the last minute – that’s like riding a speeding train into a brick wall. You need to slow down now.
Not planning will lead to a financial strain on your organization and perhaps the need to lay off employees. Not planning could mean that the clients you serve are in a worse situation and you cannot help them. Not planning and communicating well means confusion.
Staff and Volunteers
Look after your employees and staff first. They are your most valuable resource. They may not be able to come to work because they or a family member are ill or because they must look after their kids if schools are closed.
- Follow the guidelines from the CDC, World Health Organization, and your local health officials.
- Have your CEO direct staff to work remotely if their jobs allow it. Hold meetings via Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, or another similar platform. Let staff bring their computers home if they do not have their own.
- For staff who need to come to work, your CEO should work to have extra supplies available – hand sanitizer, soap, tissues – even masks and gloves depending on their roles. Encourage everyone to be super vigilant about cleanliness. Have everyone clean their desks, phones, keyboards. Clean common areas over and over and over – shared printers, the copier, the coffee machine, the sink, refrigerator, and counters.
- Working with your CEO, develop a communication plan so you can easily update all your employees and volunteers including board members.
- Tell staff not to come to work if they might be sick. This is not the time to power through an illness.
- Evaluate all travel and watch for government guidelines around international travel.
You want to provide as many services as you can, realizing you might see increased demand.
- If you are a direct service organization, have program staff identify how your clients will be impacted and how you can continue to provide as many services as possible, especially to vulnerable populations.
- Have staff create a plan that prioritizes which services will keep going if you have staff or financial shortages.
- Make sure staff is coordinating with other similar community organizations. In the face of emergencies, we must work together.
- Have a communication plan for your clients as well.
Evaluate the risks to your organization. Unless you have an unusual organization, you can’t keep spending at current levels and survive a pandemic plus a market turndown. Cut expenses immediately. Make a plan and revisit it frequently.
- Your CEO, senior staff, and executive committee need to do some analysis. What will the impact of an economic downturn be? What reserves do you have? Where can you cut costs now to reduce your monthly run rate – and hopefully make it through without having to reduce staff or potentially close down?
- What happens if you cancel a fundraising event? This is an area where board members can play an active role by reaching out to their networks online.
- Communicate with your funders – Share your plan for continuing your work while simultaneously protecting staff and partnering with other organizations. Being proactive will make you look good to funders – and potentially open you to additional or urgent funding needed to address the current situation.