Five steps to strengthen your board during the pandemic

This great series of five blog posts to help boards stay focused, strong and unified during the extraordinary pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic was written by Brian Saber, a fundraising consultant and president of New York City-based Asking Matters, a web-based company that specializes in training non-profits in how to ask for money, and how to “get and stay motivated for that work.”

You can find these posts on the Asking Matters website, but we’ve collected them here to make it easy!

The time to strengthen your board is now, even with everything else on your plate. During the pandemic, critical issues are constantly arising for non-profits, and if your board is not working efficiently and strategically as a team, it can’t take ownership of the issues. For some organizations this alone could cause their demise. When the pandemic itself is over, it will be a time to rebuild and grow. The stronger your board is now, the better positioned you will be to thrive in the future. We are bringing this series of blog posts to them to help build the strongest board possible at this time.

–Michael Davidson and Brian Saber

#1: Engage a Board Leadership Team on a Regular Schedule

With the unusual level of stress on organizations caused by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to have a clear allocation of responsibility for managing the work of the board.

This is especially true for the sake of your executive director (ED) and board chair, so they are not left with the responsibility for managing your board themselves (developing the meeting agenda, scheduling meetings, following up on committee deliverables, etc.). Without help these two key leaders will burn out fast.

By giving attention to two areas of your board structure you can help take the burden off your ED and Board Chair.

Management Team

First, there must be a small group of board members who, together with the ED, take responsibility for managing your entire board. That could be your executive committee, or a team composed of the chairs of key committees. This group would normally meet in-between board meetings.

While this group is always important, during the pandemic it is essential. As you know firsthand, challenges keep arising, the realities of what your organization is facing changes often, and any misstep can have magnified consequences. While during better times this group might only meet monthly, during the pandemic we recommend they meet at least bi-weekly to:

  • Plan for and manage board activity while everything is virtual, which can be extra challenging
  • Oversee and coordinate the work of the committees, which need to work efficiently so board members don’t burn out
  • Develop the agenda for board meetings including whether a matter is for board decision, board input, or information purposes only. The goal is to be laser-focused on strategy
  • Provide guidance and support to the ED, who is facing levels of management issues on a massive scale

If your management team is the Executive Committee, it also has emergency decision-making authority. It should only use this authority when a timely decision is imperative. The more often this committee makes decisions, the less empowered and engaged the rest of your board will be.

During COVID-19, where issues arise constantly, the temptation will be to have this management team make many decisions. It will take discipline to slow the pace enough to include the full board as often as possible.

ED/Chair Meetings

Second is a weekly meeting between your chair and ED.

When there are questions about whether a matter is for decision by the board or by staff, solutions can be developed in this meeting. This meeting is also an opportunity for frank discussions of how the board might be productively involved in strategic issues, as well as of the board/management interface such as requests from board members for information from staff, etc.

Tip: Keep this meeting to 30 minutes to assure the focus remains on high-level priorities.

#2: Focus Board Committees & Ad Hoc Teams on Working with Staff on Specific Tasks

The work of the Board takes place primarily in committees that analyze issues for board decision. It is especially important now that the work be focused on specific deliverables relative to your organization’s current challenges. You may, in addition, bypass the committee structure to form ad hoc working groups that engage the best mix of talent to address specific issues.

Program Planning Committee

This committee generally works with staff to develop and monitor program outcomes, and reviews programs that may have an impact on the mission. Today that may well include a focus on developing service priorities and strategies for the current environment and the new realities.

Finance/Audit Committee

In addition to the audit process, this committee has four primary roles, numbers 2 and 4 of which are particularly critical at this time:

  • Approval and monitoring of the annual budget
  • Monitoring the organization’s cash position
  • Developing and monitoring financial control policies
  • Considering alternative financial scenarios

Many non-profits are facing cash flow issues due to decreased program income, cancelled fundraising events, lost government contracts, and more. This is creating payroll and other immediate issues which staff need help managing. Further, in light of this, the key need now is for the development of alternative financial scenarios for organizational survival, and the Finance Committee must develop them, in conjunction with the Executive Director and other key staff, to bring to the board. This is a good example of an issue that should come directly to the full board even though it could be considered the type of emergency the executive committee or management team addresses.

Resource Development Committee

This committee works with the staff to create a fundraising plan to be adopted by your board and then provides oversight for its implementation. It is also charged with leading the process of soliciting your board for its annual contributions, as well as working to engage your board in outreach for resource development.

Given the pandemic, which has changed the fundraising landscape significantly, it is imperative that board members step up to the plate. The committee should develop a plan for board members to meet or exceed their previous fundraising impact (both their contributions and the funds they raise). Further, the fundraising event model has been transformed, and this will impact how board members fundraise.

In some cases, organizations have successfully pivoted to virtual fundraisers, but many events simply cannot happen, and over the long run it is unlikely people will continue to support virtual events as they have in-person events. If there ever were a time to finally start to employ the board as cultivators and stewards of the organization’s major gift donors, this is that time.

Governance Committee

The Governance Committee, in addition to nominating and orienting new board members and renewing board member terms, has the responsibility of putting forth the slate of officers each year. This is one of the most strategic tasks, as the officers set the course for the board. This work must go on.

In addition, this can be a good time to work on recruitment strategy. Some organizations have used this time to develop a board recruitment prospectus and to reach out to key stakeholders and supporters for recommendations of potential board members. Staff are key to this process. They can research and provide best practice examples and write draft documents with committee direction.

Some organizations have even conducted preliminary interviews with recommended candidates, though admittedly this can be challenging and we’ll talk more about this in next week’s post.

#3: Focus on Recruitment

As previously noted in this series, this can be a good time to work on recruitment strategy. Often, in the rush of moving ahead, boards recruit in a less planful way. This can lead to taking advantage of opportunities in the moment without thinking through long-term strategic needs and implications. With the opportunities for courting and interviewing candidates limited, it can give you breathing room to develop stronger strategies. However, don’t discount the ability to recruit new board members today. Many are looking a positive way to make a difference while we’re shut in.

In looking to develop a board that will be engaged in its multiple roles, it is important to be clear on your ideal candidate.

There are five distinct criteria for board member recruitment.

  • Thought leadership skills
  • Commitment to the mission
  • Access and willingness to reach out to resources and fundraise
  • Ability to work as part of a team
  • Representation of different viewpoints

Thought Leadership Skills

First are the ongoing basic thought leadership skills every organization always needs. Those include financial management, the ability to identify legal issues, insight into community needs and resources, knowledge about how to sustain and grow a business, expertise in communications and marketing, and human resources management.

The second set of thought leadership skills are those ongoing needs that are specific to your nonprofit. Some of these might be real estate development or management, union negotiations, investment management, subject matter expertise, or the representation of important constituencies. While it might be tempting to bring on someone specifically to address COVID-related issues, you might also consider engaging them on a committee first to make sure they would have long-term purpose on the board.

Commitment to the Mission

People should join your board because they believe in the importance of what you do. Hopefully, the candidate would have already demonstrated that concern.

Resource Development

Foremost will be their own personally significant gift. In addition to providing a personal gift, they may represent companies that can supply gifts as well as goods and services or know of companies that can. They may know people who can bring their expertise to committee work. Additionally, all board members must agree to help cultivate donors and, where appropriate, solicit them. These may or may not be their own contacts.

Ability to Work as Part of a Team

Asking something as simple as, “what has been your experience working as part of a team?” can be very enlightening. Not everyone enjoys being part of a team… or understands why putting the team above your individual agenda is so critical to board work. Everyone on a board needs to be willing to lead something at some time —a committee, an event, or the board itself.

Points of View

It is important to have a board sufficiently diverse so there are members who, by virtue of background or experience, have the capacity to understand the needs and interests of your different constituencies. It may be important, on occasion, to bring that expertise in from the outside.

Action Steps

  • Figure out what’s needed & what’s missing. Start with a wish list; skill sets, points of view, connections to resources, etc.
  • Develop a board prospectus. This document is like a recruitment announcement for a staff position. It promotes the organization and describes the position. It talks about what you have done, what you’re trying to do going forward, and how the board is critical to the work.
  • Define your recruitment process. Who does the interviewing? How are decisions made? Develop a list of interview questions to serve as a guide.
  • Obtain board agreement that every board member should be looking to find their own replacement.

#4: Use Board Meetings Really Well

Board meetings should be a time to engage the thinking of your board members on issues of strategic importance. They are also an opportunity to re-energize your board.
They should not be for “updating.” There are alternative ways to provide information. Your board members can read; they do not need to be read to. And with everyone getting Zoomed-out, board members may simply not show up if it’s only to hear the same-old, same-old.

So, if you’ve been struggling to transform your board meetings, this is the moment to do it. Start by creating timed agendas and have board members agree to a practice where routine reports will be sent in advance and not discussed unless a board member sends a specific question in advance of the meeting (a practice commonly known as a “consent agenda”). New ideas that may come up should not be discussed, but rather referred to committees (or your management team) for analysis before consideration by your board.

Board meetings should be substantive. Every meeting should include a “mission moment” that provides an anecdote of a specific program success, discussion of important strategic long-term opportunities and challenges, and an opportunity to focus your board on its fundraising responsibilities.

This does not mean a fundraising report which they can read beforehand. Rather, this is an opportunity to run brief exercises that encourage board members to practice their personal story, better understand their money concepts, wrestle with whatever is stopping them from being active fundraisers, and more.

Every board meeting should have a brief executive session without staff at the end. It has no agenda and no minutes. It can be as brief as ten minutes for the purpose of reflection on the meeting. It can also allow for the expression of ideas that board members may have had but self-censored due to the presence of staff. Should issues arise that require broader discussion, your chair will be able to communicate that to your Executive Director.

Your chair should also assure that each meeting has some informal opportunity for board members to simply connect with one another. Today that’s more important than ever as the absence of in-person meetings can hinder board camaraderie. When they get to know each other personally, they’ll be more likely to want to come to board meetings, work hard so they don’t disappoint their friends, and engage in mutually respectful discussions… even when they disagree!

#5: Strengthen Leadership Culture by Building the Board as an Effective Team

It is probably one of the few universal truths of human behavior that we are at our best when we are working as part of a group. Today you need all your board members working at their best individually and collectively.

Boards work best when board members know what is expected of them and are confident their fellow team members are living up to the same expectations. There are two categories of expectations—measurable performance standards and behavioral norms.

Measurable expectations are those that could be reported back to your board members and to the Governance Committee in a “report card.” These include board meeting attendance, committee participation, committee or board leadership, personal contributions, and fundraising involvement.

Behavioral Norms

In addition to these measurable expectations, there are behavioral norms that are equally important. These norms include:

  • Respect for fellow board members
  • Readiness to check one’s ego at the door — to say “it’s not about me”
  • Willingness to consider perspectives different from their own
  • An understanding that the board speaks with one voice
  • Respect for the dedication and work of the staff
  • Deference to committee recommendations; providing helpful refinements rather than revising the entire proposal

These norms seem like common sense but making them explicit provides great support for your chair or another board member when a board meeting or a board member seems to be going off the rails.

Strategies designed to motivate board engagement — for example, connecting board members with programs and strategic board meetings — are important, but they do not directly address the challenge of finding board members who are motivated to assume leadership positions.

Professional Skill Development

An answer is to be found in the strategies used for staff development. Providing opportunities for professional skill development is an important motivator for staff. Providing similar opportunities to board members may be valued by them as well.

\When board members are asked about what they’ve gained personally from their board experience, they first and foremost talk about making a difference, having an impact. Serving as a board member often adds another level of meaning to one’s life, both through the work and through the new people and communities they connect with.

Board members often also acknowledge the value of strengthening their skills and confidence in areas such as:

  • learning how to work with a group
  • seeing an issue from different perspectives
  • reaching decisions by consensus

Have individual conversations with each board member about their board experience and their personal goals. These conversations can be with the Chair or with members of the Governance Committee. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.

This will not be a quick process. Over time, however, board members can come to value the challenges and opportunities of board leadership. You may even be faced with having to choose between candidates for chair!

Action Steps

Have self-assessment conversations with each board member to:

  • Review accomplishments
  • Solve problems
  • Set goals
  • Identify how board experience can be enhanced
  • Create leadership development plans, including stretch assignments, skill development goals, etc.