Engaging Your Board During COVID-19 

The following Q&A’s are from THRIVE IMPACT’s weekly Crisis Conversation Series with nonprofit executives. Grab your spot for the next one here!

These discussions are a place for nonprofit executives to learn, ask questions, and share insights on what’s working for their nonprofits.

In our April 14th conversation, Cindy Hallberin, veteran nonprofit CEO and board member of four boards, answered these questions as our guest. Here’s a recording of the discussion, as well as the presentation slides.

How should I be communicating with my board right now? And, how can I keep them engaged?

Don’t just communicate – OVER-communicate. You need to engage your board during crisis, period. They need to hear from you on a regular basis, so try for once a week. Tell them what you’re doing, what challenges you face, and what solutions you’re implementing. It doesn’t have to be pretty; give them bullet points if necessary – anything to keep them informed.

To engage your board, keep them in the loop. Ask for advice. Be transparent. Rely on their expertise. If they feel needed and valued, they will help.

Many organizations we’ve talked to are asking board members to call individual donors and funders personally. This is a good starting point, especially for board members who have been hesitant to fundraise in these times. They can give a simple “thank you” to your supporters, which makes both your board and those they call feel useful. On both sides, increased engagement often results in increased support.

How can I get my board involved in fundraising – especially right now, when they feel tapped out? What fundraising strategies can I use?

Swallow hard – you simply have to fundraise. That’s one of your board’s key roles! The first step is simply to ask. So make the case: Lots of fundraising events are being canceled or transitioned, so you need the revenue more than ever. Sometimes, just writing a check can be a relief if they’re too overwhelmed to give you their time.

You can consider a board match campaign, where they match new donations coming in up to a certain amount. Also, many boards have a “give or get” minimum – if they don’t give themselves, where can they find additional money? Who else can they ask? Can they write grants? Go to a bank? Find other sources? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and your board should be willing to put skin in the game. If not – consider why they are on the board in the first place.

What are some creative fundraising ideas to get your board engaged in new ways?

Ask them to record short video clips. During the stay-at-home order, lots of people are producing very informal appeals, so the quality doesn’t have to be professional. In fact, your audience is looking for anything to distract them from the circumstances, so play into that and use the times to your advantage. Be clever, be campy, be creative! Tap into your board members’ individual personalities to bring life to the appeal.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask over and over in new ways. Create lots of different kinds of virtual opportunities for people to support your mission – set up multiple online donation platforms, build an ask into a digital scavenger hunt, pivot your model from services to goods, etc. Find ways to use the new normal of remote engagement to your advantage!

My board has been focused on the negative aspects of the crisis and tends to make decisions based on immediate fears instead of forward planning. How can I guide the process better?

Scenario-based planning is a great way to keep the conversation focused and specific. Fear often comes
from uncertainty and an overwhelming sense of the looming unknown; you can allay that fear by adding as many specific details as you have. Use program data, financial reports, staffing plans, and other tangible resources to make the discussion feel as pragmatic as possible.

Also, remember that your board has a governance role, not a management role. Don’t let that line blur! Set them up for success by asking them clear-cut questions that they can consider practically. Don’t try to stifle their concerns; use those as thought-starters to go through a creative problem-solving process that will land on objective, solution-oriented outcomes.

Share your own commitment and drive to improve your circumstances – your energy will be infectious. And if the board doesn’t seem to be making progress as a group, lean on your chair or a particularly engaged and positive member or two to help you guide the discussion, or even ask for an offline one-on-one conversation.

How can I recruit new board members, especially in these times?

Lots of folks want to help right now, as the crisis has reignited a lot of altruistic natures. Even though we are all more stressed than ever, many people actually have more time on their hands, or can use their time more flexibly than usual. Executives may not know of a specific “big picture” way to be helpful; membership on your board could be exactly what they’re looking for. Give them an opportunity to pitch in and make a difference, not only for you and your organization but for all of the people you serve (or are struggling to serve considering the situation). Describe the role as a practical and immediate way to get involved – you need help, right now, in specific ways (fill in the blank!). Think about how they can give you their expertise, time, money, and energy in a way that will make the most immediate impact for your organization.

My board has been focused on the negative aspects of the crisis and tends to make decisions based on immediate fears instead of forward planning. How can I guide the process better?

Scenario-based planning is a great way to keep the conversation focused and specific. Fear often comes from uncertainty and an overwhelming sense of the looming unknown; you can allay that fear by adding as many specific details as you have. Use program data, financial reports, staffing plans, and other tangible resources to make the discussion feel as pragmatic as possible.

Also, remember that your board has a governance role, not a management role. Don’t let that line blur! Set them up for success by asking them clear-cut questions that they can consider practically. Don’t try to stifle their concerns; use those as thought-starters to go through a creative problem-solving process that will land on objective, solution-oriented outcomes.

Share your own commitment and drive to improve your circumstances – your energy will be infectious. And if the board doesn’t seem to be making progress as a group, lean on your chair or a particularly engaged and positive member or two to help you guide the discussion, or even ask for an offline one-on-one conversation.

Innovations from Nonprofit Executives

Our community of nonprofit leaders know that they’re stronger together. With mediated group discussions, they’ve shared insights on what’s working. Here are just a sample of the ideas they’ve generated:

Two's a Crowd

Reach out to your members one-on-one rather than as a group. Less time of their will be wasted that way and you can get more done with each.

Video killed the Email Star

Since we can’t go outside, email has taken up even more of what your board sees everyday. That means they’ll pay less attention. Spice it up with a presentation with bullets, images, infographics — anything but a wall of text.

Whoever Writes the First Memo Wins

Many nonprofits are dealing with unresponsive boards. If you’re not getting any response to “how does this plan look”, change to “here’s the plan, if I don’t hear something from you in 5 days I assume you approve.” 

Your Board Won't Last Forever

Considering both the fact that the pandemic is deadly, now’s the time to think deeply about board succession and succession procedures.

No one had a section in their strategic plan on dealing with a pandemic.

We can help.

Nonprofits we work with get Great Results:

"We have fully incorporated the board work we did with Thrive Impact and are cooking with gas with new programs, new fundraising initiatives, etc. They really catapulted us!"

Marchelle Sellers

CEO, Artists for Peace and Justice, NYC

"Our main revenue stream started to dry up and we needed to find the path forward. Thrive Impact helped us find three new revenue strategies and started to see our revenue increase right away."

Nantz Rickard

CEO, DCTV, Washington D.C.

"Thrive Impact did an amazing job facilitating our strategic planning process. There was a lot of new data, historical perspectives and personality nuances that could have easily derailed us from achieving our goals. Their credibility, knowledge, and personalities were the reasons why we were able to get the clarity we needed!"

Lissa Goldenstein

Board Chair, RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association

"Thrive Impact helped us pick out the best pieces of who we are, put them together in a new way, and create something that we are really excited to unveil."

Elizabeth Lott

Senior Pastor, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans