Many of us have been remotely engaging our boards for over a year now and are beginning to see light at the end of the Zoom tunnel. As the crisis begins to wane, it may be tempting to step back inside the comfort of the known. But we believe that the better course of action is to seize upon this moment by looking for lessons we’ve learned over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure our boards are equipped to thrive now and into the future.
The suggestions below are focused on addressing vulnerabilities and building resilient relationships. While they’re particularly relevant at this moment, they are evergreen best practices that can be elevated to blunt the impact of this crisis and help our boards emerge with greater focus and more purposeful connection.
Strengthen the foundation on which your board is built
Crises can expose weaknesses in board structures, operations, and culture. Addressing these issues often means getting back to basics to focus on both “what” a board does and “how” it does its work. Creating a plan to strengthen the following aspects of your board is an important first step.
Here are a few areas to focus on:
- Revisit your boards’ mission and bylaws to see if they reflect your organization’s current needs and goals. Policies, procedures, and standards for good governance are critical to board performance and create a sense of security and shared mission. In addition to reviewing your current governance documents, you might also consider creating a board job description, a formal orientation for new board members, or an annual board self-evaluation, all of which are aimed at empowering board members to become active ambassadors and effective leaders.
- Along with the pandemic, the summer of 2020 brought with it the opportunity to have frank conversations about race. While diversity is a broad term that encompasses race, gender, and ethnicity in addition to experience, ideas, and professional qualifications, now is a good time to expand your board selection criteria to include these factors. A good board provides mentorship and guidance, not just money, and an organization is only as excellent as the diversity of perspectives represented on its board. Use this moment to begin to take consistent steps toward fostering a more diverse and inclusive community of support.
- Review the way you undertake business with the board. Strive to keep meetings focused and action-oriented so the board can engage in work that advances strategic priorities instead of administrative issues. As appropriate, explore virtual platforms, “silent meetings,” or inviting outside experts to foster a culture of open dialogue and enliven and enrich the board’s understanding of your organization’s mission. There are online tools such as Jamboard that are great for brainstorming. We’ve also found that some organizations use silent meetings—wherein some portion of the meeting is spent digesting information and thinking before any actual conversation begins —to help foster deliberate and thoughtful feedback and provide an opportunity for all attendees to express opinions and ideas. Whatever your approach, first consider what you are trying to accomplish and then pick a tool or format that suits your agenda.
Renew your partnership with the board
Behind every successful organization there is a strong board whose members are engaged both collectively and individually. Given the critical nature of this partnership, it is important to give time and attention to relationship development and the unique ways in which board relationships can be expanded and deepened during a crisis. To start, you should think about board engagement as an ongoing experience rather than a set of recurring meetings. Focusing on better communication, leveraging the unique skillsets of your board, and leaning into fundraising will have positive benefits in the short and long term.
Here are a few areas to keep in mind:
- Board members have limited time and a strong desire to have impact. This is never truer than it is during a crisis, and organizations can maximize their boards’ time and energy by modeling good communication that is timely, focused, and transparent. Making and enacting a plan for board communication in between meetings—considering the appropriate cadence, content, and format—creates vital opportunities to address information gaps and makes space for more authentic exchange that can continue well past the crisis. Don’t forget to ask your board if they are getting the right information!
- Seek out board members individually or in small groups for specific counsel. In addition to considering skill sets and interests, also think about how board members approach problems and interact with others when you ask for their help or invite them to participate on a working group. Whether this interaction is formal or informal, it can ensure members feel like trusted colleagues who are helping you weather the storm while also advancing your strategic goals.
- The financial implications of a crisis are often immense and the need for philanthropy has never been greater. The impact of a board’s giving during this period cannot be underestimated and should be prioritized. As appropriate, ask board members to increase or diversify their support for your essential priorities. Being donor-centric and following donor interest is often our first impulse in cultivating a gift, but in this moment of urgent need, board members appreciate understanding how they can have the greatest impact.
Boards are charged with a duty of care. Leveraged the right way, they can serve as an important lifeline to our organizations during and beyond crisis and help us emerge more resilient, focused, and effective.
If you need assistance refocusing your board, please reach out to Angela at firstname.lastname@example.org.