No matter the type of organization you help lead, you are no doubt finding that in the weeks since the pandemic has changed all our lives, anxiety is high and every day is filled with operational challenges as we try to fulfill our missions in a changed world.
It’s true for clients we’ve talked with in every sector of the nonprofit universe—from a theater that is discouragingly (and we hope, temporarily) dark, to zoos that need to keep the animals fed and cared for even without ticket sales, to a hunger relief agency finding itself in demand as never before.
We know it could be easy, at least for a few weeks, to fail to give your board the full attention it deserves, but that would be a serious mistake. Now is the time to engage more fully than ever, drawing strength from your board, and at the same time strengthening it for beyond the crisis.
Here are few steps to consider if you haven’t already:
First, reach out and communicate. Check in by phone and email, through individual and group conversations. Share updates and make sure everyone is well.
Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, says that she is always working to engage her board and foster connectedness, but now she has become even more intentional. “In Zoom work group meetings, we have paused to share personal stories and really created a meaningful dialog. At one point our chair read a poem aloud, perfect for this moment. Afterward, I reached out to share it with the board as a whole.”
Clearly, this can be an opportunity not just to stay in touch but to connect more deeply.
Second, seek insight. When we work with clients on board development, we emphasize the role board members play in connecting your organization to the wider world. They are your link to thought leaders, influencers and donors, and right now, that role is especially vital. That’s because all of us are relying on personal experience to navigate a situation unlike any we’ve ever experienced.
Ask your board members to help take the temperature of the moment. Considering bold moves to shift your program online, but need to test how they will be received? Float a trial balloon with board members. Wondering when it will feel appropriate to re-initiate major gifts conversations? Ask your board to get a sense from their friends.
Remember: seeking people’s wisdom and advice draws them closer—far more than simply keeping them in the loop.
Third, look forward. Well before we’ve returned to normalcy, it will be vital to plan for that return. Your board can begin that work now.
Ask your board to look six months into the future, to the end of the fiscal year and beyond, to consider where you want your organization to be and to imagine the steps it will take to get there. Envisioning your successful future is not only necessary, but also affirming.
Also take this chance to revisit your strategic plan in light of new realities. (Our Strategic Planning team at S&W is rolling out a new tool to help, our “STARR Strategy”—Strategic Assessment and Roadmap to Recovery.)
At Chautauqua Institution, these conversations are already underway. As vice president of advancement Geof Follansbee says, “We looked at our strategic plan and started a dialog with board members about whether this is actually an opportunity to jump start some key efforts, especially related to online engagement. We’re clearly beyond operating as usual, and in some instances that might mean we can move more quickly than usual.”
No doubt you have your own ideas for meaningfully engaging your board—ideally in ways uniquely appropriate to your organization and its work. I urge you to explore them all and invite you to share them with us through this email link.
We will come through this strange time and may even find it an opportunity for growth. As Laurie Zierer says, “This crisis has made business personal. Our board and staff are experiencing it together, and because of that we will absolutely be closer when this is over.”