Board Oversight and COVID-19: A Call for Engagement

With COVID-19 in all 50 states now, few nonprofits will be immune from the impacts rippling through our society and economy. No matter what your organization does, it will likely be affected.

[See my mid-March post here with questions to ask early on – depending on where you are in our country, this may still be relevant.]

In the last month I have spoken to nonprofit leaders locally and statewide, each dealing with the personal and organizational impacts in different ways. All of them are adapting, evolving, feeling their way through it. Each is seeking to nurture and promote resilience for themselves, their staff and their clients. Each is worried about the future, with glimpses of hope shining through from time to time.

My encouragement is to not go it alone in your leadership role as board leader or executive staff– no matter the size and nature of the organization, the board has several critical functions in this time. Now is not the time to disengage from governance and support functions, even as each of us deals with the personal impacts of this new reality and our “psychological bandwidth” may feel maxed out. It may be tempting to say “Everybody’s busy and distracted, let’s just skip our board/ committee meeting.” Resist that temptation, sharpen your videoconference skills, and get the board engaged!

What are those critical board functions?

  • Accountability and Fiduciary Oversight
  • Thinking Partner
  • Individual Support to Management and Mission Delivery
  • Encouragement and Recognition

I’ll address the first bullet point here, and the final three are discussed in this post.

Accountability and Fiduciary Oversight: first and foremost, the board’s role is as guardian of the mission, assets, people and donors. This means managing risks and reducing exposure. In this key governance role, the board should be asking:

  • Protecting our People: Have the executive (and/or program staff and volunteers, as appropriate to the organization) put in place appropriate adaptations, practices and procedures? Depending on the nature of your operations during this time, this could involve shuttering the office and working from home, but for many nonprofits that is not an option, such as a food bank, shelter, or residential treatment center. If your operations involve some form of personal contact, what measures have been taken to reduce the potential spread of infection? What can we do through videoconferencing, phone calls, or contact-less delivery?
  • Human Resources: How have we adapted our HR/personnel practices in this time? Have we accommodated work-at-home needs to the best of our ability? If we have laid people off is there anything we can do to stay connected to those employees, in the hopes that we can bring them back to their jobs in the future?
  • Special Authorities: Because quick decisions need to be made, is there any authority the executive requires that they do not already have to expedite responsive action? These authorities may be temporary, and may even need to be retroactive in some cases if a quick decision was made on the proverbial “battlefield”. Maybe you need to change to check-signing authority to minimize the need to seek out board signatures; on a temporary basis the board could authorize the Executive Director to sign checks alone, with email approval from the treasurer as a check-and-balance. Or perhaps you need to be able to grant overtime for employees, or increase paid sick leave if someone becomes seriously ill. If you grant any temporary authorities, be sure to set limits and keep track of what needs to be reversed after the current crisis passes.
  • Emergency Financing: If our funding is not secure during this time, what is our financial plan for the short-term (next 3-6 months) and beyond? Have we explored options available through the Small Business Administration like the Payroll Protection Program or emergency loans? What would we need to do to maximize the opportunity for loan forgiveness? I heard a helpful suggestion: if you think you might need this kind of (potentially forgivable) loan, apply now and you can decide later to accept the loan, or not. Because the loans are “first come first served” the window will only be open for a limited time.
  • Fundraising: What is our approach with existing donors, sponsors and foundations? Is it time to consider a special request for funding, or do we put our current plans on hold?
  • Increased Communication: What do we need to do to keep in touch internally between board members and staff, especially as conditions change daily and decisions may be fast moving? What external stakeholders do we need to communicate with, and how often?
  • Plan for Resuming Operations: What is our plan to resume operations once shelter-in-place orders are lifted? Once our offices or facilities are open, what can we do to ensure appropriate physical distancing and personal protection (gloves, masks, surface disinfection, etc.)? Is there a gradual ramping up we can do, once restrictions are lifted?

For other roles of the board collectively and individually, see this post.
For helpful suggestions about analyzing financial impacts and options, read
COVID-19: What Nonprofits Should Do Right Now

For more about Montana nonprofits and COVID-19, visit Montana Nonprofit Association’s resource page.