By Shelly Schnupp
Stories about nonprofit boards tend to focus on the bad or the ugly. Where was the board?!? is an angry refrain often heard when a nonprofit organization falters or fails. But what about the good?
Throughout the stages of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, nonprofits nationwide moved from addressing immediate financial crises to reimagining their organizations. At Spectrum, we’ve been honored to witness their tenacity as they found ways to continue mission impact during very challenging times. We’ve also seen how boards contributed to their organizations’ survival… and success.
Boards stepped up in many ways over the last year and half, playing fiduciary, strategic and generative roles. These three modes of governance, defined by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor in their seminal book Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, capture the complexity of nonprofits and the work of their boards. Each mode is necessary for a board to be high-functioning and they provide a useful way to offer some examples of how boards rose to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.
With organizations facing a drop in revenue, nonprofit board members called upon their networks to keep nonprofits afloat, often in new ways. They opened doors to financial institutions to help nonprofits access PPP and other funds available to support operations. Board members helped nonprofit staff work through complex and evolving application processes and red tape, facilitating their navigation while ensuring nonprofit compliance with expectations and requirements of new sources of support.
Strategy development is a hallmark of nonprofit boards and, while COVID may have changed how this was done, for many organizations it didn’t stop this from occurring. Board members zoomed with the best of us, working together through numerous online meetings to devise strategies to keep organizations operating and planning for the future. We personally worked with organizations that completed full strategic planning processes, engaging online from start to finish. We also saw board members analyze data, discuss trends, share perceptions, work through processes, challenge each other and laugh together, using audio and web conferencing platforms to get work done in ways that everyone could participate.
Establishing a culture of inquiry is characteristic of generative governance. This practice, according to a nonprofit executive, prepared the nonprofit’s board to wrestle with challenges posed by the pandemic. This board’s discipline of grappling with issues in the context of the organization’s mission to reach deep levels of understanding “helped set the stage for bet-the-farm decisions” for determining the organization’s “pathway forward” during the pandemic.
Overall, the pandemic elicited what one executive characterized as an “uptick in the level of engagement” for boards, regardless of governance mode. Meeting more frequently—even weekly—seemed to be common among boards we encountered. According to one board member:
…our committee meetings, for example, increased in frequency 3-fold and everyone simply became more comfortable with an ongoing dialogue facilitated through digital communications, as opposed to waiting for the face-to-face. As it did in the business world, information velocity increased in the non-profit world. We’ve become better at handling more information and making more decisions more quickly. The pandemic forced us to get comfortable with this change and I expect our greater capacity to channel information more quickly will endure.
It’s not to say that all nonprofit boards rose equally, or at all, to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But some did and it’s worth noting and learning from them. Boards are willing and able to use technology which can increase their engagement. Board members, as individuals, can make the difference in a nonprofit’s survival. And there are ways for boards to prepare for the unexpected.
But perhaps the greatest take-away is that when there are meaningful and important things to engage on, board members are willing and able to step up.