A Year of Pandemic, Protest, and Propaganda — What Now?

We made it to 2021 — happy to get beyond 2020 – the year of pandemic, protests, and propaganda. There is a light at the end of the tunnel as COVID vaccines are approved and distributed. We will have a new president who believes in science and real facts. Our journeys toward racial equity are accelerating.

What now? Seize the opportunity. Now is the time to make changes – some long overdue, some bold.

Center Equity

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others plus the subsequent protests have – hopefully – catalyzed our country to reckon with our long history of racial injustices especially against black and indigenous people. As leaders, we must consider how these injustices – and those against women, LBGTQI+ people, immigrants, people with disabilities or mental illness, and more – impact those we serve, our staff, and our communities. Most likely, your organization works with people who have been marginalized so centering equity in your work is essential.

Start at the top and model the behavior you expect by diversifying your board. The conversations you have and the decisions you make will be radically changed when the people sitting at your board table reflect the communities you serve. A previous post, the Journey to a More Diverse Board, shares a story about one organization’s successful effort to transform its board. Unexpected Bias Reveals Need for Diversity relates a story of a board that hired a minority ED but did not anticipate the resistance this person would encounter. The board chair reflects that if they had a more diverse board, the bias would not have been unexpected. Another post, How NOT to Choose Board Officers, talks about selecting board leadership in a thoughtful and democratic way.

Provide board members as well as staff with effective anti-racism and equity training. Hold frequent follow-up discussions or training. Encourage people to identify where your organization’s programs or policies are not equitable and to propose ways to change them. Make space for everyone to reflect on their own biases and their efforts to move along the journey toward equity.

Celebrate Your Staff

The pandemic highlighted another source of inequity in our society – the people who are deemed “essential workers” – grocery clerks, child care providers, waste removal people, bus drivers, health care workers, first responders, and more – are amongst the least well paid in our society.

I would include nonprofit employees in this list. Think what your staff has pulled off these past few months – putting in extra hours to help those in need, balancing work life while caring for their children, taking zoom calls from their bedrooms.

An email or phone call from board members to staff just to say “thank you” goes a long way.

Don’t be Quiet – Advocate for Your Mission

I strongly believe that all board members need to be ambassadors for the organizations they support. This means talking to policy makers about the importance of your mission and advocating for policies that support it. Your organization should be on top of upcoming legislation and policies that impact your mission and the clients you serve. Board members should be available to help staff reach out to policy makers. Boards should also ensure your budget includes advocacy, so staff have the resources they need.

Too many nonprofits avoid advocacy. But it is one of the most powerful tools to further your mission. I wrote a series of posts on advocacy. You can read stories and advice from board members: Board Member Shares Lessons About Advocacy, Now Is the Time to Take Brave Stands, and It Changes Everything, an Advocacy Checklist. Ten Ways to Be an Effective Advocate provides the perspective of elected officials. Nonprofits Must Advocate is an interview with Judy Reckelhoff at BoardSource and Stand for Your Mission is an interview with Sonya Campion, a founder of the Stand for Your Mission campaign.

Trash Tired Fundraising Events

Being an ambassador for the mission of the organization includes helping with fundraising as well as advocacy. Every board member should participate in fundraising. Board members can make introductions, host events, and accompany staff on fundraising calls. And those who are too shy to ask for money can thank donors – making calls or writing thank you notes. 

Lockdown has shown us that we can and should take a hard look at fundraising and make bold decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Organizations have had to forego luncheons, auctions, and other fundraising events as well as in-person meetings with major funders. Start by aligning your fundraising with your values. Then evaluate each program. Are you holding that auction just because you have always had one? Did you actually make any money? What did you do in 2020 that could be a permanent replacement? Or could you do a hybrid model?

Adopt Good Governance Practices

What we all discovered as we started meeting online is that having good policies and procedures in place served us well. Organizations with well-functioning boards found they were available to help the CEO and leadership team as thought partners – to fundraise, complete scenario planning, work through financials, advise when layoffs had to be done.

Don’t waste a crisis.

  • Spend time creating a diverse board.
  • Provide thorough onboarding and continued training around governance, anti-racism, equity, finances, fundraising, and more.
  • Start having executive sessions. When tough decisions need to be made, the CEO often must talk to the board without other staff. And sometimes board members need to talk amongst themselves without the CEO.
  • Have a board job description so board members know what is expected of them. It is important to define roles between board and ED/staff.
  • Engage your board members – plan meeting agendas that are strategic and interactive and that offer them the opportunity to use their skills and expertise to make the organizations stronger.
  • Be transparent and inclusive. The board chair or the executive committee should not keep information to just themselves. When the crisis comes, you may find a mutiny on your hands.
  • Ask hard questions – this can help the ED focus on risks and prioritize. It also helps ensure that the board knows what is going on.
  • Regularly review bylaws and other polices including whistle blower, conflict of interest, investment, gift acceptance, hiring, and more.

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