Nonprofit Governance Always Matters, Maybe Now More than Ever
By Nanette Fridman

If nothing else, the coronavirus crisis has pushed many nonprofit boards into overdrive to meet their governance role in a rapidly changing operating environment—and most have done admirably, with little or no summer break—but as they approach September, unrefreshed, they'll need to up their game even more.

Board members have been engaged on many fronts – financial modeling, medicine, construction and design, human relations, and loan preparation, among others. They've steered their organization through rough waters and accomplished much.

While we wait for a vaccine and other breakthroughs, boards need to maintain their momentum. The following should help.

  1. Recognize and appreciate the heroic efforts: Practice gratitude

    Before going any further, stop, thank, and recognize the contributions of everyone—board members, staff, volunteers, partners, donors, vendors, and others—who pulled the organization through the last five or six months. You can send them a little care package, toast them at your next Zoom meeting, and/or mention them in your newsletters and social media channels.

  2. Clarify roles for task forces, committees, and individual board members: Don't assume; write it down

    If you convened a COVID or an emergency task force in March, is it still going? Is the original charge valid? Now that we are in another phase, do you need different task forces or committees? How does the work of your standing committees change, if at all? What are new expectations for board members? Are you adding board meetings this year? Clarify your working groups, committee charges, and expectations for everyone.

  3. Recenter your board: Get back to basics

    At one of your next meetings, ask how you’ve lived your mission and values (or not) over the last six months. Don’t have organizational values? Need to update your mission? Brainstorm – and consider a process for formalizing a process now or later.

  4. Rework your board materials and agendas: Balance your agendas

    During these unprecedented times, we likely need to do more updating of operational issues than normally recommended at a board meeting. Consider sending out a COVID written update prior to each board meeting. Then leave time on the agenda for any related questions. Don't forget to make agenda space for more strategic conversations. For example: What are the lessons learned from your virtual engagement? Has it changed how you think about who you serve? What has the pandemic done to your strategic plan? When and how can you start that planned giving program you meant to launch this past spring?

  5. Set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals: What gets measured, gets done

    While everything is impacted by the pandemic, you still want to ensure good business practices, and engage in goal setting. Hopefully, the board is (re)setting strategic goals, along with its own goals, and the staff is determining operational goals. These are the benchmarks for the work that will be done during the year, and how you measure progress.

  6. Radically prioritize: Sometimes less is more

    If your staff and customers aren’t safe and comfortable, you can’t carry out your mission. If your organization isn’t financially sustainable, you won’t be able to carry out your mission. Radically prioritize, and avoid taking on new work unless you have the human capital to get it done without jeopardizing your priorities. It’s okay to say 'no.'

  7. Update your board communication strategy: You can't over communicate

    Your board may be used to meeting monthly, but in this environment, one month can be a lifetime. Plan to send updates between board meetings, and consider drop-in virtual office hours with your CEO/ED and board chair for those interested in more information.

Your work and your organization’s mission should be a source of great inspiration. Take a deep breath. Reflect on the journey you have all been on since March. Be proud of all that you have accomplished. And get ready for a busy fall.

Remember this Swedish proverb: “Rough waters are truer tests of leadership. In calm water, every ship has a good captain."

Nanette R. Fridman is a veteran organizational strategist and leadership coach. She is the president of Fridman Strategies and a partner in Working Wonders. Email her at

August 2020