Never Waste a Good Crisis: Step Up!

Images of New Yorkers coming together at 7pm each day to give thanks to the city’s frontline workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

This morning, one of Cause Strategy Partners‘ Advisory Board Members asked a great question:

“Is there a possibility that interest in board service generally will decrease because of the risk of nonprofits going under?” She added, “I’m getting a lot of questions about the state of the sector and most folks are very pessimistic about any but the largest nonprofits making it through this time.”

As you can see, I am blessed with very smart, inquisitive and well-placed advisors to partner with in our work. This was my response:

I do think that we will see a number of small and mid-sized nonprofits merge or fold. In many instances, I don’t necessarily view that as a bad thing. While so many small and midsize organizations are incredible at delivering on their missions, some are not great (and a few aren’t even good) at what they do, and not all should necessarily survive. To borrow from Rahm Emanuel’s famous line in 2008, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Financial crises like the one we are currently facing can be good opportunities for the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors to be more strategic in how we support and serve communities by funneling limited resources into fewer (and more robust) nonprofit organizations that are better positioned to offer high-impact services at greater scale.

Not all of my nonprofit friends will love me saying this, but I believe it’s true.

As this happens, that may indeed mean that there are fewer board seat openings. But at the same time, in our experience serving hundreds of nonprofits across the country through BoardLead, nonprofit leaders usually present to us with multiple board seat openings. According to BoardSource’s national nonprofit index, 58% of nonprofit CEOs say it is difficult or very difficult to identify new board members — and that’s in normal times. Additionally, our BoardLeaders are viewed as particularly valuable in many ways because they come from reputable companies in the community and are usually supported by generous employer matching gift programs, dollars-for-doers programs and other supports. Even more important to the BoardLead team, nonprofits and companies alike put a premium on the high expectations we have for our board candidates (see The BoardLeader Way), our deep-dive governance training to support our hundreds of BoardLeaders in achieving those high expectations, and our 1 and 2 year impact measurement process to insert accountability into the equation.

So, will fewer people want to serve on a nonprofit board because of the increasing challenges of leading in a crisis?  Maybe — but I’m leaning into “no” and here’s why. During national and global crises, there is an instinct — perhaps particularly here in the United States (see Alexis de Toucqueville, Democracy in America) — to want to do something personally meaningful in response. For example:

  • Leaning out our windows to cheer and beat pots and pans at 7 pm to thank those serving on the front line
  • Making homemade masks and sending them to medical front line staff around the country
  • Sending lunches in bulk to hospitals so staff get a free lunch and an expression of our gratitude
  • Checking in on elderly neighbors
  • Donating our blood or plasma to help others we will never know

The best way for high-capacity professionals to make a deep impact is through board service — bringing the fullness of one’s gifts, skills, knowledge, experience and resources to support a cause they care about. This is BoardLead‘s clarion call as we invite professionals of our various corporate partners to step up and apply. We are receiving a sizable and warm response from hundreds of talented professionals interested in connecting to purpose through nonprofit board service. (We will have data to better inform this gut instinct on May 15 when our candidate application deadline for the current round closes.)

I’m hopeful that high-capacity professionals will see board service as a way to double down on their commitment to community, overcome fear, and maybe even accept some of the ‘risks’ associated with a board role at a challenging time.

Robert Acton Headshot

Robert Acton, Principal and Founder, Cause Strategy Partners

Robert Acton, JD is Principal and Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a firm that provides strategic counsel and high-impact programming to foundations, companies and social good organizations with a specialized focus on building both board and executive leadership.