Show Up: Your Role as a Board Member During a Pandemic

Person with hands on head trying to decide what to do

After a week of rapidly changing responses to COVID-19 across the country, nonprofits are feeling the effects and having to make quick decisions on how to manage their organizations in light of social distancing.

To be clear, the stakes are high and the dangers are real. Many nonprofits provide critical services for people who have vulnerabilities that will be exasperated during social distancing. If organizations that provide food, housing, and emergency supports close, those they serve may be left without life-saving and necessary resources. The staff of those organizations are called on to keep showing up at work, potentially putting themselves in the path of COVID-19 and not allowing them to deal with the implications of a shut down in their own lives (i.e. not having child care when your kids are home from school). 

During this pandemic, our emergency response systems across the country are being tested and we’re seeing clear vulnerabilities and gaps. The nonprofit sector has important similarities – both serve, though in different ways, vulnerable populations, but there has been insufficient preparation for a situation of this magnitude. This leaves organizations without a game plan and each organization scrambles to make its own decisions about remaining open, supporting participants and employees, and navigating the inevitable financial repercussions in the coming months.

As a board member, you’ve likely been caught up in your own response to COVID-19 this past week. There has likely been communication from the nonprofit you lead to you about the response, but you may be left wondering, “What is my role as a board member during this time?”

The most important thing you can do as a board member is to show up. It may not be in person due to social distancing, but make sure the leadership at the organization knows you have their back and you’re there with them in the fight. 

There are three areas in which board members and the collective of the board that boards can immediately focus on to help their nonprofits:

Support

Just like CEOs of any company, over the course of the past week nonprofit CEOs have been consumed with making plans and decisions about how to handle the rapidly changing landscape and adapt their organization’s work while still trying to accomplish their mission. We are in unprecedented times and without a clear path ahead. As a board member you may have significant concerns about the organization and you should reach out to the CEO to offer support and encouragement. Unless asked for advice or assistance, remember that your job isn’t to be in the operational weeds. You shouldn’t be figuring out schedules and plans, but you should make sure your CEO is getting the help they need, feeling supported by the board, and taking care of themselves in the midst of this. As a board, you can’t take your primary employee – the CEO – for granted during this time. You need their leadership to navigate the organization through this time and your job is to support and partner with them to make sure the organization has the resources needed to accomplish the mission. 

Tips:

  • Be available for quick counsel. This may mean rearranging your schedule to attend an emergency board conference call, or it may mean responding to emails and phone calls from the CEO to talk through scenarios and provide expertise. 
  • Reach out and support the CEO with encouragement and gratitude. The CEO position in nonprofits is isolating and can feel very lonely and there is nothing worse than making tough decisions and communicating them in a vacuum. If you do nothing else, send an email, text, or call the CEO to thank them for their courageous leadership during this time and ask how you can help. 

Resource Equity

As this article reminds us, many employees at nonprofits aren’t doing work that can be done from home. Even if they have things they could be done remotely, not all nonprofit employees have the tools to work from home. This is even more true for program participants. Nonprofits will encounter this challenge repeatedly in the coming weeks as they look for ways to continue to provide support and programs in a new format but are limited by the inequitable access to resources by participants and employees.

While stimulus packages are rolling through Congress and relief is being considered from government entities, now is the time for the sector to make our needs known. Any economic relief needs to include provisions for nonprofits to get emergency loans and grants to ensure organizations can continue, as well as incentives for charitable deductions, and business relief measures. 

Tips: 

  • Advocate for economic relief for nonprofits. Call your legislators today and tell them about the importance of any relief packages including provisions for nonprofits. Use your social and political capital to support those organizations you care about.
  • Advocate for policy change. The larger opportunity with this challenge is to use this moment as an example of why we need policies to address the issues of racial and resource equity. 

Financial Health

Nonprofits are making real-time decisions that are in the best interest of those they serve. They may encounter new costs that are far outside their budget as they move into emergency preparedness and response. Buying extra supplies, paying overtime for staff, and adding expenses related to technology and cleaning services add up quickly. The challenges of hourly and low-wage workers losing their paychecks as organizations suspend operations includes many nonprofit employees. Nonprofits want to care for their staff and are encouraged to continue paying their employees, even if they are not working during this time. Simultaneously many nonprofits are forced to cancel galas and fundraising events because they are group gatherings, leaving a significant fundraising gap while having increased expenses with decreased resources. And with many nonprofits having less than 3 months of cash reserves, this means that some nonprofit organizations will simply not be able to pay their bills and survive this crisis without extra support. 

Many in the foundation community are considering ways to help address these extra financial needs right now, but even with good advocacy for government funding and some extra resources from institutional philanthropy, nonprofits will face large financial challenges and need extra help from their boards to ensure they are providing for the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. 

Tips:

  • Make a donation. The financial implications of the decisions related to social distancing are immense and heavy on the minds of nonprofit leadership. One way to bolster spirits and to do something tangible in the midst of this time is to make an extra donation right now.
  • Help plan for filling the gap with extraordinary fundraising. As the weeks unfold, board members will be called on to meet the gaps in organizational finances by filling them with support from themselves and those in their networks. Dig in with your colleagues to figure out the best path forward for your organization to adjust to this challenge and be prepared to roll up your sleeves on fundraising alongside the staff. 

The bottom line is this: don’t wait – show up as a board member today. Make the call, send the text, or send the pizza to the staff that is still faithfully carrying out the work of the organization. You’re a board member because you care deeply about the mission and that support is more needed now than ever. 

Laura Zumdahl Headshot

Dr. Laura Zumdahl, President and CEO, New Moms

As both the CEO of a nonprofit and the board chair of another, I’ve been contemplating the role of boards during the current crisis. If you are a board member and wondering how to be engaged right now, I hope this article will give you some ideas on how you can show up for your organization.

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