Nonprofit Boards & EDs Must Jointly Act During the COVID-19 Crisis
By David Harris
A crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, requires heightened nonprofit board engagement, because the assumptions the board has made about vision and mission, fiscal oversight, governance, and how to evaluate the executive director get called into question.
For that reason, the executive director alone should not bear the burden of making significant adjustments without the benefit of the boards wisdom, experience, and consent.
Together the board and executive leadership must ask and answer fundamental questions, and must then work together to take action:
Are the services the organization provides still needed, viable, and valuable? If not, how might the mission need to be adapted to the current circumstances?
Are there still adequate internal and external resources, financial and otherwise? If not, what can be done about it?
What are the new operational priorities and how will stakeholders (staff, clients, funders, and other supporters) be impacted?
There should still be a clear division of responsibilities in getting these questions answered and developing a plan. Specifically, executive leadership should be gathering input from the staff (perhaps the most important stakeholder group), developing options, identifying the potential impacts, and ultimately developing and executing an action and a communication plan.
Meanwhile the board needs to assess how realistic the financial projections are, approve any changes in focus or services, document key decisions, assist with stakeholder relationships that might be at risk, and communicate the action plan in a unified manner.
In addition, this is a time when the board should be demonstrating unity and support for the staff, clients, and the mission and ensuring that the core values of the organization are being reinforced since actions taken in a crisis will be judged against those core values.
With this backdrop, here is a recommended 10-step process for navigating this crisis:
Face the facts: Put an action team together with key board members and staff leadership and solicit input from staff and other stakeholders to collect all the available data as it relates to budgets, program needs and constraints, and the potential impact on stakeholders. In particular, revise cash flow projections and highlight the unknowns.
Use core values to guide decision-making: Review the mission and values of the organization and consider what staff and other key stakeholders expect and deserve.
Be transparent and share information widely: Honesty and openness will build credibility and lessen the repercussions of difficult decisions while often attracting new supporters.
Build an action plan and an action team to implement it: Set out discrete timeframes for action (30, 60, 90, 180 days); adapt your by-laws as needed to allow for new ways to meet, new authorities needed, etc.; triage and look for new ways to deliver programs as needed, perhaps looking for partners that might be able to take on some program responsibilities or share in some costs; consider the impact on staff, including what may be needed to ramp up services once the crisis has passed; design financial monitoring and response systems so that action plans can be adapted as new information becomes available.
Take bold action and make change: Inform the staff, clients, funders, and others of the need for action and be open to their responses; mobilize the staff and board with discrete responsibilities and timelines; and monitor progress on a regular basis and in a visible manner.
Support staff in adapting to new realities: Board leadership must show their commitment to the staff and the mission and should support the ED in delivering any bad news. Should circumstances require changes in staffing, be clear on compensation, benefits, sources of internal or external assistance, and future potential for returning to normal operations.
Reinforce relationships: Enlist board members to reinforce key community and funder relationships through open, honest conversations designed to learn what stakeholders expect while communicating the organizations plans. Funders often have wide networks that can be very helpful.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: Be clear who speaks for the organization and what the messages are, then use all available channels to get the message out.
Assure compliance with legal obligations: Pay attention to details such as obligations to staff or funders since these can easily be overlooked when moving fast.
Review lessons learned: Crises are learning opportunities about governance, people, core values, and the opportunities that might exist for the organization. Opportunities may exist in service offerings, operational efficiencies, growth potential of staff members, relationships with stakeholders, potential partnerships, the reputation of the organization, and ultimately its vision for the future.