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May 12, 2021
Board Members Need to Help Nonprofits as Pandemic Recedes
Phil Buchanan
Phil Buchanan

April 8, 2021 — Even as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be receding, many nonprofits will continue to face higher demand and less revenue, requiring board members to support their executive directors, perhaps more than ever before, and do whatever it takes to attract and retain staff, Massachusetts nonprofit leaders were told Wednesday.

Noting that the work of executive directors “is uniquely difficult,” board members “should take the long view and support their ED,” said Phil Buchanan, president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, a Cambridge-based advisor to foundations and grant makers, addressing a virtual gathering of the Institute for Trustees hosted by the Essex County Community Foundation.

“Nonprofits are working on the toughest challenges, the ones that defy government solutions. And B corporations won’t replace nonprofits,” he said. “The twin challenges of increased demand and decreased revenue doesn’t happen in the business world.” [B, or benefit, corporations are for-profits that include positive impact on society, workers, the community, and the environment in addition to profit as legally defined goals, and have been allowed in Massachusetts since 2012.]

At the same time, he added, funders need to understand the unique demands on nonprofits and should not apply return-on-investment or overhead metrics—they do more harm than good, he said—when evaluating the impacts of their grantmaking.

In addition, Buchanan told the audience of board members and nonprofit leaders, funders can help nonprofits by providing multi-year support, thereby helping to build revenue predictability.

Nonprofits, in turn, can make an argument for unrestricted funding by explaining to grantors how restricted grants undermine their ability to plan and operate. Nonprofits can “reorient the conversation to trust and shared goals” he said, by explaining how their goals, overlapping with funders’ goals, can lead to mutual success.

Proclaiming that the work of nonprofits “never stops,” Buchanan outlined steps board members can take to help ensure their organization’s success:

  • Resist comparison to business models. Help your donors and volunteers understand how the uniquely collaborative nature of nonprofits differentiates it from running a business.

  • Stand up for and take care of your staff. Board members should engage in what it takes to attract and retain staff, and pay at the rate people need to live.

  • Support your executive director, as it will help shape the next generation of leaders, who are wondering whether ED life is what they want.

  • Move the talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion to action. Look hard at who is on your board and leadership team. Examine hiring and employment practices. A clubby, insider approach to hiring won’t get you there.

  • Use your voice to influence the public and public policies. By virtue of your work and your on-the-ground knowledge, you can influence policy.

As of yesterday, 738 people had registered for The Institute for Trustees, which continues through mid-May.

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