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.