Advice for Engaging Boards

Apr 7, 2020 | All Posts, From The Partners, Special Topics

By Mary Moss

Let’s look back at the last month, which seems like a year.

Your first order of business was to make provisions to meet your mission even as you were shuttering your offices.  Somehow, you had to go virtual administratively and also devise new ways to meet your constituencies’ needs.  Then, in the flood of programmatic adaptations, you cancelled or postponed fundraising events, reached out to your donors and volunteers to check in, and pushed out some great annual fund appeals.  You have done a terrific job.

Now, what about your boards?  The pandemic thrusts boards onto center stage to assess and reassess the risk that COVID-19 poses to the organization.  Risk management will continue to be the number one focus during the crisis, with special attention directed to program delivery and finance.  Yet there is other work you can do to create a board that is stronger after this crisis than before.

Being respectful and grateful for all that board members are doing already, initiate a conversation with the chair of the board and/or the chair of board development about using this crisis to build a stronger board. Consider these six suggestions, and let us know if we can help you:

  1. Practice Extreme Stewardship – If the board has not met and is out of touch, ask several board members to join you in reaching out to other board members. Script them to ask how they and their families are faring during this time.  Individual members are facing similar issues related to COVID-19, and this shared experience with your nonprofit is unusual.  Phone calls, texts, and emails all work, but phone calls are preferred because you can engage in conversation or leave a message.
  2. Communicate – Step up the frequency and content of your organization’s communications tailored specifically to the board. They want to know in real time how COVID-19 is affecting mission delivery. Board members should hear your plans before the general public. Also, turn to board members with specific skills – communications professionals, accountants, lawyers, doctors, business people and philanthropists, and others – as sounding boards on specific issues.
  3. Conduct a Board Review of Best Practices – What better time to look at your bylaws, committee structure, board composition, risk management and crisis management policies, and philanthropy. Ask the executive committee or an ad hoc group to own this process.  We just delivered a final report virtually on this topic to the UNC School of Social work.
  4. Plan – Strategic Plan, You Say? How can you take time to plan during a crisis?  Some of our clients would say this is an ideal time, given the circumstances, because people have more time to be deliberative and participate in the process.  Scheduling is not an issue for most people.  We have found that strategic planning is very productive now, even virtually, as we work with the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission (see quote below).
  5. Ask – Many board members are the first to make an extra gift during this time. You will have to judge the need and culture, but we are seeing large gifts being made to fund student assistance and other programs directly affected by this crisis.  Your board members are your best supporters.
  6. Plan a Virtual Board Session – With all the technology available, there is no reason not to meet as a board, and there is also no reason not to socialize. A frequently voiced concern is that board members have no opportunity to get to know each other.  Plan a virtual gathering where everyone can have a beverage of choice and just catch up.  moss+ross has organized a coffee with our team of 23 people.  My Rotary Club is meeting with 45+ members as well as socializing, as are many other friend groups.  Another client is considering a virtual lunch ‘n’ learn.

Board members are your most trusted advisors and strongest advocates, and you can still harness that power during the COVID-19 era.

We were just beginning our strategic planning process during a big anniversary year for our nonprofit when the pandemic hit. Our strategic planning committee had its first meeting planned and we had to switch to a video conference format. I was nervous about how this committee, who had not worked together previously, would gel in a less interactive environment and whether we would get the quality discussion we were hoping for. The committee was skillfully led by moss+ross staff and in spite of my initial reservations, it was incredibly productive. I have confidence we will be able to continue this strategic planning effort without interruption.

Jennifer M. Lechner, Executive Director, NC Equal Access to Justice Commission