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Stewardship During This Crisis:
Five Things for Boards to Consider

May 11, 2020  | by George Suttles

COVID-19 | Governance and Policy

As the world continues to grapple with the social, economic, and public health implications of the current COVID-19 crisis, nonprofit organizations and their boards are working tirelessly to stabilize, navigate, and continue to advance their missions. During this time, here are five key things for board members to consider:

Be Proactive: We keep hearing the word “unprecedented” when it comes to the COVID-19 crisis, so as much as boards can be proactive in their scenario planning and gathering of information, they should put processes and procedures in place to do so. Ideally, good stewardship practices and policies would have been put in place before COVID-19 and fully activated during this crisis. With that said, there are new challenges that even the most astute, well run boards would not have been able to foresee. In times where information is limited and boards may be faced with a series of sub-optimal decisions, scenario planning that allows for flexible, real time adjustments is vitally important.

Be Engaged: Traditional nonprofit governance models call for work to be done in committees and for boards to focus on strategic, high level matters. Although during a crisis these tenets are still true, the full board must be engaged as best as they can, understanding that individual board members may be dealing with personal stress during this time. This does not mean that board members should be trying to assume management responsibilities, but now is the time for every board member to try and be actively engaged and available for meetings, updates, and new working groups that can be organized to help manage scopes of work during this crisis. Active partnership between the board and the senior management staff is important now more than ever.

Be in Communication: Whether you are a large, complex nonprofit like a college or university, or a small community-based organization, you have many internal and external constituents and stakeholders who are looking to your organization for accountability, leadership and guidance. Although there are still many unknowns, and the operational, economic, and emotional stressors that have been brought on by this crisis continue, thoughtful, timely and transparent communications are important. Outreach should share important and appropriate updates while expressing compassion and care, this approach will continue to keep staff, donors, individuals, partners and communities engaged and invested in your organization and the shared mission.

Lead with your Values: As stewards of organizations and resources, there are procedures, protocols, best practices, standards and regulations that guide and inform board activities. With that said, the organizational mission, purpose, and shared values should be the North Star. Especially in times of crisis, leading with shared values allows the board to focus on the organization’s purposeful destination and helps reframe important strategic and operational questions. For example, as a board member and investment committee member of the New York Foundation, although we care deeply about preserving our endowment, our decision making is more so guided by our values; in deep partnership with our grantees, we are spending to support them and amplify the voices of marginalized communities during this time.

Use your Imagination: Mission-focused nonprofit organizations are important community resources and this crisis has exposed fractures and accelerated what we already knew about many nonprofit business models.

For example, traditional higher education models have long been understood to have significant challenges over the long term, as rising tuition costs, technology, and alternative models that prepare young people for the future workforce have proven disruptive. Private and community foundations that tended to focus on existing into perpetuity are not only being asked to be flexible with their grants and ease grantee reporting guidelines, they are being asked to spend more during a time when their endowment values may be down. Many nonprofits that believed that the delivery of in person programming was their “secret sauce” are now learning that certain aspects of their programming can be delivered more effectively and efficiency through virtual access and innovative digital technologies.

With all these shifts, now is the time to use our imagination. What do new, transformative nonprofit business models look like? Fundamentally, do we need to do things the way we have always done them in order to achieve our mission? Are there new and dynamic partnerships we can form? How do we explore new governance models to include as many voices and perspectives as possible? What role do we have to play in a post COVID world?

It is difficult to see now, but this crisis has provided opportunities to respond, and even innovate, in ways that may prove more effective in not only meeting the current moment but advancing long-term missions.

Authors

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George Suttles supports Commonfund’s educational, market research, and professional development activities as Director of Research of Commonfund Institute. He also serves as a member of the Commonfund Diversity and Inclusion Office. Prior to joining Commonfund, George was a Program Officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation, an independent, national private foundation focused on improving care for older adults. Before joining the foundation, he was a Vice President, Senior Philanthropic Relationship Manager at U.S. Trust/Bank of America. In this role he worked with private and institutional clients on issues related to best practices in strategic grantmaking. Throughout his career, George has supported the philanthropic activities of leading nonprofits with a focus on healthcare and related missions. He is also a member of numerous nonprofit boards, including Odyssey House, Drive Change, and the Support Center for Nonprofit Management. Currently, he is on the Adjunct Faculty at the New York University (NYU) School of Professional Studies. George received a B.A. from Wesleyan University, an M.A. in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (IUPUI) and an M.P.A.  from Baruch CUNY School of Public Affairs.
George Suttles
Director of Research
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Disclaimer

Information, opinions, or commentary concerning the financial markets, economic conditions, or other topical subject matter are prepared, written, or created prior to printing and do not reflect current, up-to-date, market or economic conditions. Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to update such information, opinions, or commentary. To the extent views presented forecast market activity, they may be based on many factors in addition to those explicitly stated in this material. Forecasts of experts inevitably differ. Views attributed to third parties are presented to demonstrate the existence of points of view, not as a basis for recommendations or as investment advice. Managers who may or may not subscribe to the views expressed in this material make investment decisions for funds maintained by Commonfund or its affiliates. The views presented in this material may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of any Commonfund fund, or of any Commonfund manager. Market and investment views of third parties presented in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of Commonfund and Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to present its views on the subjects covered in statements by third parties. Statements concerning Commonfund’s views of possible future outcomes in any investment asset class or market, or of possible future economic developments, are not intended, and should not be construed, as forecasts or predictions of the future investment performance of any Commonfund fund. Such statements are also not intended as recommendations by any Commonfund entity or employee to the recipient of the presentation. It is Commonfund’s policy that investment recommendations to its clients must be based on the investment objectives and risk tolerances of each individual client. All market outlook and similar statements are based upon information reasonably available as of the date of this presentation (unless an earlier date is stated with regard to particular information), and reasonably believed to be accurate by Commonfund. Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to provide the recipient of this presentation with updated or corrected information. Past performance is not indicative of future results. For more information please refer to Important Disclosures.