Involve Your Board, Don’t Push Them Away!

In this unprecedented time, how is your organization treating its board members? What can and should board members be doing to support your organization now? I have spoken to a handful of board members in the last couple weeks. These have been casual conversations as we all check in on each other. I have heard two very different scenarios.

Increase Reliance on Your Board in a Time of Crisis

In one group, board members feel their organization’s staff and leadership have reached out to the board and all are working together on short- and long-term planning. Staff at some front-line organizations are super focused on dealing with the crisis so the board has stepped in to closely monitor finances and to outline options for the future.

“We have had Zoom meetings almost every week, staying in touch and informed. The board is focused on contingency planning. We are working on various scenarios, so we are not caught off guard.”

“I am on the executive committee and our ED is reaching out to us a lot. Not just to inform us but to work on crisis management. We are going to have to lay some people off. We want to do this thoughtfully. Some of us have lots of experience and she is really taking advantage of that.”

“Our fundraising event had to be cancelled so the board reached out to everyone we had invited – even those who had said they could not attend or those we invited in previous years. And we were given other lists of attendees too. We did not raise as much as we would have at the event, but we raised a lot. I felt like we were really helping out.”

Ignoring Your Board Members Leads to Disengagement

In the other group, some board members feel pushed away and disengaged. They report that the staff does not reply to their emails and calls or that the staff thinks dealing with the board is a burden right now.

We were not really set up to do an online meeting so they cancelled this month and said we would meet later. I don’t know when.”

“I offered to help in any way I can. I am a CPA. I said I could look at finances or draw up a plan. But the staff says they are too busy right now. I don’t want to add to their workload, but I cannot fulfill my role if I am pushed away.”

“I feel like they are making up little tasks for me to get me off their back. I hate to say this, but I feel kind of hurt. Like I am irrelevant. I know that sounds selfish. But it’s how I feel. I don’t want to hurt morale, so I am just pulling back. If they need me, they know where to find me.”

I want to be very clear — Staff: Now is not the time to be too busy to engage with board members. Now is the time to take advantage of their skills. Board members: You have a fiduciary responsibility to be monitoring the organization for risks. You must stay engaged. Don’t accept excuses.

We are all feeling overwhelmed, stressed, even scared. We are charting unknown territory. For most, this is a personal and a professional crisis. Some may lose their jobs. Others have partners who have lost their jobs. We all must work from home, juggle kids who are not in school, worry about elderly parents. We will know people who get sick and people who pass away. At the same time, many of our organizations are trying to serve more people – at a distance, with less money, and reduced staff due to illness or lay offs.

Seven Ways Board Members Can Help

Every organization is going to need to adapt and innovate. Here’s how board members can and should help:

  1. Let the staff of your organization know how much the board appreciates their work in difficult times. Reach out by email or text but offer to chat on the phone or via Skype or Zoom.
  1. Support management when they have to make difficult decisions. Help them think through alternatives. Ensure they know that you can be a thought partner without interfering in their ownership of the ultimate outcome.
  1. Be absolutely diligent about finances. Your finance committee might need to meet more frequently. All revenue streams are at risk. Make conservative projections about revenue from institutional giving, individual giving, fee for service. Work on alternative scenarios: What do you have to cut immediately to make sure you survive for the next four to six months? Under what conditions would you have to reduce staff? Guide your ED or CFO through building a contingency plan around different scenarios, and then have them discuss with the board.
  1. Prioritize and make tough decisions. While programs are generally the purview of staff, setting strategic priorities falls to the board. Work with staff to examine services and programs. Which are essential? Which have the most impact? When will you have to scale back workplans? How can you adjust to offering services with social distancing? How will you adjust if staff become ill?
  1. Boards should focus on the long-term. What will you need to ramp up when the crisis is past? How can you retain your best and most impactful staff? How will the world be different and how will the changes impact your future strategies and plans?
  1. Fundraising is a great area to have board members step up. If your event was cancelled, have board members make online requests or host an online fundraiser or a phone-a-thon. If a board member is connected to a corporate or foundation funder, involve them in asking for more flexibility around service delivery, reporting, or timing.  
  1. Board members can also help with communications, especially if you have individuals with experience in corporate downsizing, change management, marketing, or communications. They can help draft or review information sent to donors, clients, policy makers, and other stakeholders. For donors, the communications might even come from individual board members.

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