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Back to the Basics: Nonprofit Board Governance in the Post-Pandemic World

photo of Earl Sissell

There is not an aspect of life that escaped the seismic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For nonprofit organizations, the pandemic was nothing less than an existential threat. At a time when the clients of social and health services organizations needed them most, many funding sources dried up, at least temporarily, and service locations and offices had to close.

More than three years after everything shut down, we continue to struggle with the aftereffects of the pandemic: increased mental and physical health challenges, an uncertain economy and shrinking social welfare safety net, frayed national and global political relationships, and profound exhaustion. Nonprofit boards are no exception.

The most important thing that nonprofit boards can do is to get back to soundboard governance basics – get out of the weeds and a day-to-day mindset and get back to governing your organization strategically for the long term – shift from survival mode to sustainability mode. There are a few concrete steps we recommend boards take to make this shift.

  • Resume In-Person Board Meetings – Zoom meetings were a great solution during the pandemic and will continue to be a good solution in some situations but being in-person is still the best way to develop the relationships, rapport, and understanding essential to excellent board governance. The subtleties of communication are lost via Zoom and it is easier to “check out” on Zoom than in person. I have heard from many board members who report enjoying being back in person for meetings but having difficulty convincing others to give up the convenience of Zoom. It does not have to be either/or. Ask yourselves, “What is the best way for us to do the work needed to reach our goals?” and then find the best balance for your organization.
  • Do a Board Self-Assessment – One of the keys to effective nonprofit governance is assessing board performance on a regular basis, ideally every year. Several boards, I have worked with dropped this practice during the pandemic because there were more pressing issues. Now is the time to get back to doing it.

As a Standards for Excellence® Replication Partner, DANA offers access to its board self-assessment tool and consulting to help boards improve their governance practices. Board self-assessment is not about beating yourself up over areas where your board is misaligned, but rather identifying those areas and developing a board governance and development plan to realign the board to be more effective. By assessing annually, boards can see their improvement and adapt their plans to meet new needs.

  • Revisit your Strategic Plan – Go back to the strategic plan that may have been shelved in 2020 and revisit your organization’s mission, vision, strategic framework, program priorities, fund development plan, and expected outcomes and outcome measurements. Strategic planning takes many forms, but the first step is assessing whether your plan still makes sense, and then revising it or creating a new one, so it is relevant and useful today and for the next few years.
  • Plan for Succession – Anecdotal evidence indicates that there has been a great deal of turnover in nonprofit leadership in the past three years and that trend is expected to continue. It has always been the responsibility of the Board to assess board makeup, identify needed skills and expertise, and cultivate and recruit the next generation of organizational leadership. As members step down, organizations risk losing the institutional governance memory, wisdom that comes with board experience, and hands needed to do the heavy lifting required to guide an organization effectively.

If you do not already have one, create a matrix that identifies all your board members, the skills you need for the board, note the skills existing members bring and the committees they serve on, and when their terms are expected to expire. Talk to board members and find out how they are, if they plan to continue their service, and for how long. Armed with this information, you can more effectively identify potential new board members well in advance, so you have the time to cultivate their involvement thoroughly and thoughtfully with the organization so becoming a board member becomes a logical next step.

Since becoming Vice President for Consulting at DANA, I have worked with many nonprofit organizations struggling to make the shift from survival mode to sustainability mode. Taking one of the steps above (or even two) is the beginning of a journey to better board governance, more impactful nonprofit organizations, and long-term sustainability.

DANA supports Delaware’s nonprofit sector in many ways, including through its consulting services. If you are interested in exploring the ways in which DANA consultants can support your organization’s board development, strategic planning, fund development, or any other aspect of your nonprofit’s operations, call Earl Sissell, DANA’s Vice President for Consulting, at 302-330-7225 x3.