I hope you are well.  I know you are juggling and trying to stay strong.  You may be home with kids and all the issues that come with it.  You may be wondering how you’ll save your own small business.  Or you may be operating an essential business and just trying to stay sane.  Maybe you’re a bit luckier and can work from home without much distraction.

I understand.  All of us are being impacted in various ways.  I know you care so much about the nonprofit organization(s) you serve!

And I know that you may barely have capacity to be purposeful in your board member role now.  I can assure you of one thing….

This is not the time to sit back and assume you’ll get notified when you’re needed.  Not the time to assume your CEO knows what to do.

Because here’s the thing.  Your CEO is in the same boat.  They don’t have all the answers.

They need deeply committed partners…..now.

I know you understand that you’re responsible for this organization.  You do, right?  That sheet you  signed when you first joined the board about ensuring the organization has the resources it needs…about the legal and fiduciary responsibility that you have.  That was for real and nonprofit boards are being tested now.

I’ve been in touch with CEOs across the country and when we talk about what they need, about how they need their board members to engage, here are the 4 common themes*.

These are the 4 things that your CEOs need from you now:

1. Calm, Consistent and Efficient Leadership: The truth is your CEO may not know what they need from you – what to ask for.  That’s ok…have the conversation and figure it out.  This is new so give yourself a break.  You’ve gotten through the immediate crisis – now it’s time to deal with the rest.

The Board President and CEO, along with any other key leaders, can have a chat about the next phase and what structure, even if temporary, makes sense.  What task forces or committees do you need?  Refer to the next 3 items for guidance but act quickly and just keep moving.

Be steady and efficient.  Be available, or let them know if you’re not.

CEOs are telling me board members aren’t replying to their emails or calls.  You may not have the capacity to lean in right now.  Got it.  Then have the decency to tell them that and lean back in when you can.


Don’t get hung up on traditional meeting agendas or meeting frequency.  If you need to meet instead of going dark in the summer, then meet.  If things are going smoothly, take a break for a couple weeks.  Just stay in touch.

NOTE: this is NOT the time to push your nose into the daily operations.  Your staff are the experts there – your role is to support with advice and resources and not second guess them.

2.  Attention to Money: Very few social organizations are going to be whole in the short or longer term.  So what’s the plan?  CEOs are asking how to know when, how and who to approach regarding donations.  And philanthropy is just one piece of your business model.

What have you learned about your earned revenue streams?  Did you utilize your line of credit?  Is it time to relax endowment restrictions?  Are reserves drained?  Will your government contracts be reimbursed at the same rate and on the same timeline?

How might PPP or tax credits or EIDL affect your budget?  What kind of data needs to be tracked and reported?  What’s the impact of extended sick leave?

Can you help devise a new plan to strengthen or stabilize your fiscal position for both the short and long term?

If there isn’t anyone readily available in your organization, do some research and outsource it if you need too.  Efficiency matters to your CEO – help them find resources.

And by the way, your CEO may be afraid to ask, but as board members, it’s certainly appropriate to lean in and increase your annual investment.  Or perhaps you could secure a matching gift to kick start some philanthropic efforts.  It’s time to lean on your most loyal donors too but staff can’t do it all.

Are you willing to have some conversations with donors? 

3. Attention to People: Your CEO is likely very concerned about staff being safe.  And that’s not all – what about your key partners, volunteers, donors and clients/beneficiaries,  just to name a few.  Your CEO feels some degree of responsibility for these folks, especially if employees had to be furloughed.

This might be the single highest determinant of their stress.

How does one manage a remote work force?  How does one keep essential workers safe?  What if you run out of protective supplies?  What happens to volunteers when they can’t come in to volunteer?   Does everyone have the technology they need to be productive?  Should you even be concerned with productivity now?  Do your donors wonder what’s going on, and are they ok?

What happens if employees are too fearful to come back to the workplace?

And by the way, how is your CEO balancing work with personal well-being?

Can you advise in any of these areas?  There are experts in the field to help you address these issues if none are readily available on staff or the board.

Do the research and outreach – efficiency matters and your CEO may not have time to curate resources.

4. Reopening Plan: According to The Bridgespan Group, “moments of crisis call on leaders to be adaptive, resilient and proactive in planning for potential scenarios.”  This is where you come in.

I strongly suggest your board president form a temporary task force of select members who have the capacity now to lend their business acumen and/or understanding of organizational development to help the CEO outline some scenarios for when the stay-at-home orders are lifted.  Stay reasonable, not perfect – there are still many unknowns so just do the best you can based on what you know now.

Use your organization’s guiding principles or strategy screen for making key decisions.

Here is a list of things to consider in your reopening plan to get you started (not intended to be inclusive):

Let’s break it down and remember you need plans for short and longer term:

  • Programs and Services – staff will be the experts here on how to deliver services safely to meet your mission, so support their thinking and look for strategies that allow physical distancing, provide for safety supplies such as disinfect wipes and hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and other protocol that may be required.
  • Personnel – how staff works going forward deserves serious attention and they must be included in the conversation. To maintain physical distancing, will they need to work in different shifts, or work from home on a rotating basis (what if they have kids at home?)? Do you need to reconfigure the layout of work stations and lunch rooms and outdoor seating?  Do you need to invest in additional technology to support them in being effective?
  • Policies – no doubt we’ve all learned some things in recent weeks. Perhaps you’re missing a few policies regarding crisis communication, or cyber security or gift acceptance policies.  Goodness knows your personnel policies may need to adapt.

And what about your bylaws?  Do you know if you’re even “allowed” to vote via video meeting?  I’m not an attorney, however it’s my understanding that you need to be sure you’re following the state’s corporate code and then you can revise your bylaws in the near future if needed.  For example, if you needed to vote on something important, be sure to have a quorum, document it as a provisional vote and the next time you’re together you can ratify it.

  • Finance – see #2 above. Expertise is definitely required here and the board must approve budget revisions and/or new policies related to reserves, endowments, fee structure, etc.  It’s time to revisit the philanthropy plan and get laser focused on donor relations. Use data and look for where the opportunities are, leverage your strengths and help calm the rest of the team.
  • Community Engagement and Advocacy – I see this as a 3-legged stool and you need an outline for each leg of that stool.

 – First is advocacy – I’m hoping that you’ve been involved in the legislative process lately with all the decisions being made around funding, sick leave, etc. The opportunities will continue. If your board is unsure how to get involved, it’s time to lean in.  Start with your state’s nonprofit advocacy organization that will have great resources for you and can highlight how to advocate for your mission.

 – Second – interact with your networks around philanthropy. What a wonderful opportunity for people to invest in your mission.  This is a key board responsibility and if you don’t have a culture of philanthropy, you can’t afford not to anymore.  Do you know total board production of contributed income?  Do you know your retention rate?  When was the last time you invited someone to invest in your cause?

 – Third – Remember, you’re the gateway to the community for your organization. As part of the organization’s marketing and communication plan, how  are you telling the story of your good work?  The nonprofit sector is being counted on more than ever right now.  You will have amazing stories and impact data to share.  Get it out there and then ask folks to get involved by volunteering, advocating, donating, attending events and more!

These are things you can be doing from home, even if you only have 30 minutes a week.

If you need support in creating your blueprint to reopen, contact me and I’ll partner with you.

Bottom line – your CEO needs you even if they aren’t able to articulate it.  Start asking key questions about how you might help and then really listen.  And lean in.  And stay in.  It’s going to be a while.


*We talked about many other things they need too, but these are the 4 most common things mentioned when it comes to their partnerships with board members.