Nonprofit Board Members: The dos and don’ts in a time of crisis

By Molly Hansen, Vice President

Dear Board Members,

The initial shock and fear– or denial – of the Coronavirus outbreak has shifted into, “How long can this possibly go on?”

Just like every person, institution, business and organization, the nonprofit community has never been through anything like this. As a board member of a nonprofit organization, are you wondering how you can help during this time of crisis? Or perhaps you’ve already jumped into the deep end of daily tasks and are trying to help the staff do their jobs?

Let’s discuss the most important actions you can take right now.

What are my basic duties?

In times of uncertainty and turmoil, I go back to the basics. The board of directors of a nonprofit organization has three primary legal duties known as the Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience.

Duty of Care – Board members are responsible for two facets of legal compliance:

  • To ensure that an information and reporting system exists
  • The reporting system is adequate to flag board members in a timely manner when the organization is threatened by legal concerns

Duty of Loyalty – Board members must cast aside any personal or professional interests and place the interests of the nonprofit ahead of themselves.

Duty of Obedience – Board members have the responsibility for making sure that the organization complies with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations. It also means that board members should remain faithful to the organization’s vision and mission.

As you well know, board members’ responsibilities go beyond just the basic legal requirements. You also play a significant role by contributing to your organization’s culture, strategic focus, effectiveness and financial sustainability, as well as serving as an ambassador and advocate.

The 3 most important dos for all nonprofit board members:

#1 Make your personal board gift now; don’t wait for your contribution anniversary. If your financial situation allows it, do it today. Financial support is the most important thing you can do for your organization.

#2 Encourage full transparency from your CEO/ED. An emergency situation requires, more than ever, that organizational leadership is transparent. Transparent about revenue projections, staffing capacity, program delivery, etc. Share the weight. This will serve your organization well into the future.

#3 Offer to make five thank you calls to donors and former board members. Sustaining and nurturing key relationships is essential to long term success. This is not a solicitation and those you call will be grateful for the thoughtful gesture.

Basic thank you script:

“Thank you for your past support of (offer something specific). How are you doing in the midst of all that is going on? How is your family doing? Your business?”

Really listen and have a good conversation. Share a story about how the organization is doing and/or how it’s staying true to its mission. Authentically share your gratitude and concern.

The 2 most important don’ts for all nonprofit board members:

#1 Don’t cancel or postpone board and committee meetings until ‘this blows over.’ Maintain your board meeting calendar. Now is the time to fully engage in short, intermediate and long-term sustainability planning. Keep working in the present and plan for the future.

#2 Don’t be tempted to go into the weeds and micromanage. Finance committees, this is not the time for you to start making spreadsheets. Trust the CEO/ED and the staff they hired.

What if I’m the board chair?

Dear Board Chairs,

Your CEO/ED needs a confidant, a thought partner and a bridge to the rest of the board. That is YOU. Lean in. Listen more intently than you ever have before. Be as available as you can possibly be.

If the Board-CEO/ED relationship is already strong, transparent, collaborative and trusting, you will weather this storm well.

If that is not the case – begin now. There is an old proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Here’s how to get started:

  • Make your contribution and give more, if you can.
  • Continue regular meetings. If your board generally meets quarterly, make sure the executive committee is meeting monthly. This situation is so emergent, the organization’s leaders need to stay on top of current developments.
  • Meet with your CEO/ED at least twice a week, more if necessary.
  • Call your donors and find out how they are doing.
  • Understand how your organization’s mission, finances and issues you can control connect in this moment.
  • Create a plan for stability and eventual sustainability.

Times of crisis force organizations to shift and adjust. And it’s up to the leadership of each organization to make sure those adjustments make the organization stronger.

Thank you for serving as a board member – we need you now more than ever.