Mar 2020

Managing nonprofits during a crisis

Life as the executive director of a nonprofit was hard enough, and then came COVID-19. As the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, two things simultaneously occurred in the nonprofit space. Our mission-driven hearts began to beat faster with a desire to respond to the overwhelming needs that will grip our community, and a deep-seated fear began to take root—how am I going to take care of my staff and keep my organization afloat with our programs closed and weeks of shelter-in-place requirements ahead of us?

For many nonprofit leaders the isolation they’re feeling right now isn’t all due to working from home. It’s also caused by not knowing how long they will be able to make payroll or what their top priority should be as they attempt to navigate uncharted territory.

Suddenly, many EDs may feel like they need to reach out to all of their program participants, talk to every donor, craft a special appeal, figure out how to move their next fundraiser to an online platform, and write half-a-dozen new grants—all by 5pm today.

Because this is new territory, nonprofits need to stop and take a careful look at the fiscal health of their organization to ensure they understand current cashflow and projections. That understanding will be crucial to evaluating where to focus their organization’s effort in the weeks to come. But how can EDs pause to engage in this critical analysis when their brains are screaming, “But I need answers now!”

One ED I talked to this week is turning to his biggest asset for help, the board of directors. Board members are fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by providing governance and financial management oversight, as well as by making sure nonprofits have adequate resources to advance the mission—and we need that help now more than ever!

So if we can’t hold an in-person board meeting, and it’s now ten-times harder than it already was to find a date and time for the entire board to attend an online meeting, how do we harness the power of the board to help our nonprofits find their way through the challenges of a global pandemic?

The ED I spoke with went old school; he picked up the phone. Over the past week he has scheduled 30-minute one-on-one conversations with each member of his board. They used the time to check-in with each other, he made sure each person understood how the crisis is impacting the organization right now, he asked for help with analysis and decision making, and he discussed with each member what unique assistance they could provide over the next few weeks and months.

And he says that, so far, it’s working. Board members appreciate the chance to connect and he feels they have a better understanding of the threats facing the organization today—which helps lessen the weight on his shoulders. And perhaps most importantly, each board member helped decide exactly how to use their own time and talent to make the greatest impact for the nonprofit they love right now, when it really matters.  

There is no playbook to consult for guiding your organization simultaneously through a health crisis and a financial shutdown. Everyone is looking for and finding their answers day-by-day. We’re interested in learning where, as a nonprofit leader, do you most need resources, advice, or support? What strategies are you using to keep your organization viable while you are partially or completely closed? How are you keeping your boards of directors not just up to date, but working alongside you to chart a course through this new territory? Let us know!  

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