Boards and COVID-19: Preparing for phased reopening

As many parts of our country lift stay-at-home orders and other efforts to “flatten the curve”, the role of the board continues to be as critical as ever.

Ask yourself – if you were ultimately liable for the decisions made and actions taken in this unprecedented time, wouldn’t you want to be a part of the process?

In this insightful and detailed blog post, Professor Erin Bromage, PhD. does a great job digesting information from scientists active in COVID research and converting “their data and findings into prose that non-scientist lay people can more readily understand as we navigate through this pandemic”. Professor Bromage’s background is in the epidemiology of, and immunity to, infectious disease in animals. His current lectures usually focus on infection and immunity in humans.

Because the board members are ultimately, legally liable for the actions of the organization, the involvement of board members in planning, decision making and appropriate oversight of the organization’s response to the risks of COVID-19 is not optional. Judgement calls of this magnitude cannot be left to management or board chairs or individual volunteers alone. I encourage boards to use Professor Bromage’s article, and a related article putting the same information into the handy 4-box chart above, as tools in your decision making process. As organizations consider how to reopen, restart, and recall employees, or not, it is the responsibility of board leaders and executives to engage the full board in making critical, big picture decisions. They should also advise the day-to-day adaptations that most of us have never faced before. No one of us is as smart as all of us.

Consider that a key board function should be to determine and oversee the mission, programs/services, and desired results. Put another way, the board directs and validates how the resources of the organization will be used to deliver on promises made to the community, donors, grantmakers, the IRS, and other stakeholders. Maybe this happened a long time ago in the organization’s history, back to its founding days — but those decisions were made or validated by the board at some point.

Those big decisions were likely made on a certain set of assumptions and operating conditions. If those fundamental assumptions and conditions change, the board as the governing body should be aware and engaged in decision making about adapting to those changes.

For example, the board of a mentoring program working with kids should work to ensure volunteers and staff are safe and capable of working with a potentially vulnerable child. Background checks, interviews, reference checks, safety guidelines, and training would probably be part of the mix. If any of those assumptions changed (say for example the police department changes their rules, and the mentoring program was no longer able to do background checks for free), the board should weigh in on how to handle that change in the operating conditions. Or imagine that summer wildfires make your wilderness program untenable, which happened over more than one recent summer in western states….or a virus makes it risky for people to gather in groups.

Boards should take some time to consider:

  • What liability and risk management considerations should the board discuss? What due diligence does the board need to exercise to manage those risks?
  • What are the inherent risks of exposure for our clients/customers, patrons, employees and volunteers, under our normal practices?
  • How should we change those normal practices in response to the risks? (like limiting group sizes, moving programming outside, providing masks or other protective measures)
  • Can we offer a safe workplace for all employees? Can we offer safe meeting spaces for clients, groups, volunteers, or visitors?
  • For any given activity or event, do our normal operations allow us to adhere to current guidelines, orders, and/or suggestions of our local and state officials? (For example, the Governor’s Opening the Big Sky Initiative has multiple phases depending on case rates, testing and tracing capacity, impacts on hospitals, and other factors.)
  • What are the financial impacts of changes to our operations? How can we mitigate those impacts (special fundraising, Small Business Administration programs, etc.)?

RESOURCES for Nonprofits and COVID-19:
Montana Nonprofit Association
National Council of Nonprofits

Reopening information from other states and sectors:
Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits best practices (PDF)

Memphis is Reopening: Get Your Nonprofit Ready Guidelines and Recommendations for Reopening


NOTE: See my earlier posts on the oversight and governance roles of the board of directors during the global pandemic, and on supporting and encouraging the staff and volunteers.