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Six Ideas for Concerned Nonprofits Boards during COVID-19

Stepping up during a crisis? Balance unique insight with respect for boundaries.

All month long, our company Good Insight has provided free consultations to nonprofit executives and board members to talk through their specific situations related to COVID-19. From dramatically declining revenue, possible layoffs, and concerns for the communities that they serve, many are experiencing the most complex challenges that their nonprofits may ever face.

As Executive Directors are absorbed with the urgency of this crisis, we’re hearing from boards eager to be supportive but unsure where to plug in. While it’s easy to adopt an “all-hands on deck” mentality, it’s also crucial to remember the boundaries and limitations of board governance. As board members step forward, their focus should be on fiduciary and legal oversight during this emergency.

According to BoardSource, the board can play a valuable role evaluating key questions, such as short- and long-term implications of this situation, an objective review of organizational vulnerabilities, strategies for media relations, and planning for worst-case scenarios. Boards should closely collaborate with leadership, reviewing and providing feedback to the Executive Director about plans they develop and implement with staff.

We at Good Insight strongly believe that board members are in a great position to objectively assess external threats that may be too close for the Executive Director and staff to calculate alone. As business professionals and civic leaders, board members have valuable perspectives and the distance necessary to realistically review assumptions about programs, revenue, continuity planning, and staffing concerns. By nature of their role, many Executive Directors are optimists, which is a wonderful quality. A supportive board member can offer less rosy alternatives and lessons from their own lived experiences.

Here are a few ways that a board can support their nonprofit’s stability and viability, while clearly delineating their role from that of the staff:

1. Set Weekly Executive Committee Calls.

Last week, we wrote a blog post advising leaders to work with the board chair to set standing weekly executive committee calls. It’s important to reinforce that here. As this situation rapidly evolves, strong lines of communication are necessary to tackle tough decisions in the days to come. As much as possible, board chairs should schedule meetings to lift at least one thing off of their overwhelmed executive’s plate.

2. Welfare Checks.

Board members are people too – and some face uncertainty and concern about their health, their families, their work, and their communities. The Board Chair or Executive Committee members should call (yes, I said a phone call!) each board member to ask how they’re doing. Even during good times, nonprofits often forget to nurture their board members. In bad times, it’s important for us to care for one another. Callers should be prepared to share details about the organization’s COVID-19 response, and to give a heads up about any big decisions on the horizon.

3. Plan for Virtual Board Meetings.

In any crisis, the board needs to be able to come together quickly to make decisions. But convening virtual meetings and voting is possibly complex. Review your bylaws and your state’s open meeting laws to ensure you are conducting business according to best practice. Your bylaws should also outline the process and advanced notice required to hold emergency meetings. Have the Secretary review how to document motions and votes for the meeting records, as some of the discussions and decisions may have major impact on the organization’s employees and community.

4. Clear-Eyed Understanding of Finances.

The Treasurer should be working closely with the Executive Director and finance team to analyze cash flow for the coming months. Frequently updated cash flow planning tools, exhaustive records of accounts payable and accounts receivable, and projections of monthly expenses are all crucial to be able to make responsible decisions, including at what point, if any, furloughs or layoffs need to be discussed. The Treasurer should review finance policies, including those related to operating reserves, investments, and loans to ensure the organization stays liquid for as long as possible.

5. Assist Staffing Decisions.

Stronger estimates of cash inflows and outflows might mean tough decisions about furloughs and layoffs are in the future. While some nonprofits are already there, others might not be affected at all. Regardless, get financial benchmarks in place now so that there are clear actions to take if sustaining payroll quickly becomes impossible. A way for board members to be helpful is to work alongside the Executive Director to document essential staff duties. Layoffs are hard under any circumstance, but emotions are running particularly high during this crisis. Before any action, board members should review employee manuals, other personnel policies, and connect with legal counsel to ensure that termination processes comply with local and federal labor laws.

6. Strategic Planning.

Don’t worry – we aren’t advocating for a full-blown strategic planning process right now. That said, take some time for strategic thinking about how your nonprofit achieves its mission – both right now and in the future. A nonprofit board is responsible for overseeing their organization’s mission. As such, they can be thought partners about how external factors (demand for services, changes in government resources, and consumer behavior) may require adjustments in how to deliver on mission. With a 30,000 foot point of view, the board can help envision what the nonprofit looks like as it recovers from the crisis.

You might notice we didn’t mention anything about the board’s role in determining programs and services. We believe that the Executive Director is responsible for making decisions about cancellations and adjustments as they monitor the local and national developments about the virus. At the same time, the board can uphold its fiduciary responsibilities by helping to estimate the impact of the decisions on the organization’s budget, future grant opportunities, reputation, and staffing concerns.

Every day, management and governance works in delicate balance with one another. While this crisis will unfold in uncertain ways, that truth remains constant for the foreseeable future.

What else would be helpful for us to discuss? We’re available to drill down on certain topics and share resources we’re seeing in the field. Feel free to reach out to us at hello@good-insight.org.

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    1. Appreciation for guidance offered. what I enjoyed most is the call (pun intended) advice. Yes Board Members have needs too, “Reach out, see if they have needs.” This challenging time presents us with a great opportunity to strengthen our thought and neighborhood communities.