Board Chairs: Tap the Expertise Around You to Outlast the Pandemic
By Nanette Fridman
Leading a nonprofit board in ordinary times is challenging enough, but with the coronavirus pandemic multiplying those demands, board chairs should be sure to tap the expertise of their executive director/president and fellow board members to navigate the still-changing landscape.
Since the pandemic hit Massachusetts in March, board leaders, executives, and volunteers, have taken on a lot to deal with the implications of COVID-19 for the organization and its staff, programs, fundraising, operations, and governance. For some board chairs who were in the last year of their term, COVID made for a disruptive and rocky ending. As one board chair shared who ended her term in June, “I couldn’t have sustained the intensity of March to June for another month.”
With September in full swing, many new board chairs are now starting in their role. Bottom line: being board chair during a pandemic is not something they signed up for. But, this is where we are so here’s what we can do.
Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Board chairs and executives should have an open and honest conversation around how each are feeling about, and handling, the pandemic. They should jointly acknowledge the impact the crisis has on their families, jobs, and lives. Doing so will allow them to empathize and adjust expectations about the other’s time and energy accordingly.
Board chairs and executivesshould set explicit expectations for communication, meetings, and boundaries. How often will you meet? How often, and how, will you communicate between meetings? Are there days and times when the board chair is not available? Do you as board chair prefer to get questions and information as they arise, or collected and grouped together?
Board chairs should utilize the board structure:
a)The Executive Committee: Many board chairs are reporting that they are leaning heavily on their executive committees because of the emergent nature of COVID-19 and how quickly things are moving; the abundance of work needing to get done between board meetings; work that doesn’t have a current home; and the need to support the executive director or CEO.
b) Vice-Chairs: If you have vice-chairs without portfolios—or with portfolios and capacity to do more—have a conversation about specific roles or tasks they may be able and willing to take on.
c) Ad Hoc Committees, Working Groups or Task Forces: Discuss if you need additional groups to handle in-depth work related to the coronavirus crisis and its impact. For example, many organizations had a COVID-19 advisory group comprised of health experts. Do you need a group to review your strategic plan in light of the pandemic, and specifically with scenario planning? Do you need a group to explore the building and facilities implications of COVID-19?
d) Board Members: Many boards expect board members to serve on at least one committee. Make sure your committees are relevant at this moment and if the board or staff need additional help, consider asking board members to adopt a COVID Initiative or Plus Project from a menu.
e) The Immediate Past Chair: While the immediate past chair just finished and is probably fatigued, he or she is the person who has the best understanding of the job, and depending on the timing, the current situation. Discuss how she will stay involved; explicitly ask about roles, tasks, and time commitments.
f) A Mentor: Seasoned organizational and community board leaders, especially those who have led during other crises, e.g., 9/11, the Great Recession, natural catastrophes, can be invaluable resources. Ask for mentorship.
g) A Coach: A professional coach can help board chairs—and sometimes board chairs and executives together—clarify roles and expectations, help prioritize competing needs, set goals, brainstorm about designing and facilitating meetings, discuss fundraising and practice for solicitations, examine committee structures and charges, and be an all-purpose sounding board.
The board chair of course works in partnership with the professional executive, who also needs additional help and support. As they say on the airplane, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.