Who Joins a Nonprofit Board During a Global Crisis?

shot of a person's hand raised during board meeting

During the overwhelming and frightening days of April 2020 — exactly a month after the World Health Organization formally declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and the President of the United States declared a national emergency — I was asked by one of Cause Strategy Partners‘ Advisory Board Members if I thought interest in nonprofit board service was likely to decrease because of the risk of nonprofits going under.

It was a polite way to pose a very real question: “Who in their right mind would voluntarily take on a nonprofit board leadership role — and all of the fiduciary oversight, strategy setting, and fundraising expectations that come with it — in this environment?”

It was a fair query and, of course, of paramount importance to our board recruitment, placement, training and support work with BoardLead. Nonprofits were in free fall. Vital programs and services were shut down without notice. Staff teams were disbanded as offices closed. High-risk clients were suddenly left out in the cold. The doors of arts and cultural institutions were shuttered. Community health organizations faced unprecedented demand. Organizations that rely on volunteers lost their labor force overnight. The carnage goes on and on. And because nonprofits operate with so little margin, many organizations had little runway to get to the other end of a prolonged financial recession.

So, was interest in board service likely to decrease as a result of the pandemic? My response was documented in an article I shared at the time. “Maybe,” I wrote, “but I’m leaning into ‘no’ and here’s why. During national and global crises, there is an instinct to want to do something personally meaningful in response.” I shared my conviction 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.”

The question was especially important to us at BoardLead because we were smack in the middle of a huge round with scores and scores of nonprofit partners and 200 professionals from our partner companies: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Adobe, Barclays, LinkedIn, Credit Suisse and others. When the pandemic hit, our BoardLead candidates were literally midstream in the candidate vetting process. They had every right and opportunity to say to the nonprofits they were matched to, “Thanks but no thanks. The world has changed. Maybe another time.”

But that’s not what happened.

Of the 165 BoardLead candidates we matched to a nonprofit board opportunity in January 2020, more than two-thirds were elected to their board in April and May of 2020. More candidate applications than ever before. More candidate matches to nonprofit partners. And more elections, including our highest election rate ever. In other words, during an unprecedented global crisis, our board candidates and nonprofit partners outperformed any prior BoardLead round.

Graph showing conversion rate for BoardLead matches to election - election rates have risen from 45 to 68 percent in two years


I constantly stand in amazement at the passion, talent, commitment and skills that our BoardLeaders bring to their community leadership work. Now, I add to that list “determination.” Despite stay-at-home-orders, a work-life balance that had dramatically shifted, home schooling, the fears associated with a rapidly spreading and deadly novel virus, and an economic recession sure to dramatically affect nonprofits across the country, our BoardLeaders demonstrated their commitment and grit, saying to nonprofit leaders seeking their help: “Yup, I’m still in.”

The CEO from one of our San Francisco-based nonprofit partners that elected four BoardLeaders during this period said it best:

BoardLead has been instrumental to strengthening our board with expanded expertise, diversity, and vitality. We now have four members as a result of BoardLead and they are all exceptional. We believe these board members will be our future board leaders and provide the vision and strategic thinking to continue to move us forward and problem solve in these challenging times.

Robert Acton Headshot

Rob 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.