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The Nonprofit Board Chair’s Role in Building Organizational Resiliency

By Erin Hedges, president and founder, Hedges

As COVID-19 continues to change everything in our world and our communities, nonprofit organizations have stepped up to fill in the gaps and meet the needs of those who have been impacted. During the early stages of the pandemic, many nonprofit organizations were able to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loans and receive generous donations from individual donors and philanthropic institutions. These economic boosts enabled nonprofit organizations to increase and expand services to meet the urgent needs in our communities as the pandemic unfolded.

As PPP funding runs out, and donor fatigue settles in, concerns are increasing about the resiliency of nonprofit organizations as they navigate the challenge of fulfilling their missions with such little certainty on the horizon. Strong leadership and strategic thinking at the executive and board levels have never been more important as nonprofits not only strive to sustain through this time, but also build resiliency for the future.

At Hedges, we describe resiliency as an organization’s ability to weather crisis, sharpen focus, adapt to changes in the landscape, and emerge with the capacity to have even greater impact. We believe the responsibility of building resiliency ultimately lies with the board of directors in partnership with executive leadership.

The board chair is central to nonprofit resiliency and has a unique role in leading and influencing others through the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, many are unsure of how and where to focus energies among so many priorities. Here are four areas where board chairs can lead, engage and hold fellow members accountable, and foster organizational resiliency:

  • Evaluate, support, and compensate executive leadership. It is the board chair’s responsibility to ensure the full board is supporting the executive director’s success. At the very least, executive directors are entitled to an annual performance review to gain an understanding of where they are excelling and where they can improve. Too often, this process is lacking, which can leave high-performing executive directors feeling undervalued and low-performing executive directors keeping the organization from reaching its full potential. A strong board chair will lead a formal performance evaluation process, which is the foundation for a collaborative and effective working relationship between the board and executive leadership and ensures the organization has the executive talent needed to thrive. Board chairs seeking resources on this topic can begin here.

    An effective board chair will make it a priority to partner with the executive director. Monthly one-on-one meetings, in which the executive director shares what is going well, where they are feeling challenged, and what support they need, ensures the board chair is in tune with the organization and its leader. If the executive director is not meeting expectations, the board chair has the responsibility to clarify expectations and engage the board in identifying supports and resources that can help the executive director succeed. Professional development opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and training, are a few examples.

    Additionally, the board should review the executive director’s compensation package to ensure the organization is always able to recruit and retain top talent. The Central Indiana Salary Survey Report, published every two years by Charitable Advisors, is an invaluable resource containing local compensation and benefit data. It can be downloaded here.
  • Be a fundraising champion. The board chair does not need to be a fundraising expert but does need to be a fundraising advocate. A strong board chair educates and influences fellow board members and executive leadership to double down on fundraising efforts now in the interest of the long game. First, the board chair can urge fellow members and the executive director to avoid cutting fundraising expenses as a short-term fix, as it will have long-term consequences. Second, an effective board chair sets the expectation for and executes 100% board giving to the organization. This includes facilitating conversations among board members to determine individual contribution levels or a combined board goal, monitoring board gifts, and making asks of those who have not yet given. Third, the board chair reminds fellow members they are expected to introduce individuals in their networks who may be potential donors. This can be done in a variety of ways and staff can play a facilitating role. Lastly, a strong board chair champions board engagement in stewardship efforts through such activities as donor thank you calls and letters.

    Indianapolis social entrepreneur Jeb Banner, in this article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, provides further insight into why every nonprofit board needs fundraising champions.
  • Build operating reserves. The importance of the rainy day fund has become abundantly clear in 2020. According to experts, three months of cash on hand is a bare minimum to safeguard an organization in times of uncertainty. Yet, data shows that 32% of nonprofit organizations have less than three months of operating reserves and 62% have six months or less (2018 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, Nonprofit Finance Fund).

    While it can be difficult to secure operating capital above and beyond annual expenses, it is not impossible. A strong board chair will address the need for establishing, restoring, or increasing operating reserves to build short and long-term stability for the organization. Once there is board agreement, a policy should be created and approved to outline appropriate minimum and maximum thresholds, how funds will be invested, and how funds can be used.

    The board chair should encourage the finance and development committees to work in partnership to create a strategy and a timeline to secure unrestricted funds that can be held in reserves, most likely from loyal donors who have demonstrated support to the organization over time. Jill Robisch, vice president and senior business development officer, Nonprofit Services, The National Bank of Indianapolis, encourages nonprofit organizations to hold short-term funds in a liquid fund like a money market account that is governed by a short-term working capital policy.

    Longer-term investments should be guided by the organization’s investment policy statement and held in longer term investments, such as equities and bonds. Robisch said that, over time, organizations should work toward having enough income generated from long-term investments to serve as the organization’s short-term liquid capital. A strong board chair will also hold the organization accountable for staying focused on building the reserve funds in accordance with the policy developed and agreed upon.
  • Make every seat count. As the proverb goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The same is true for nonprofit boards. Members are recruited with the expectation that they will bring their knowledge, skills, and expertise into the boardroom. And, yet, how many board seats are taken up by individuals who don’t attend meetings or are not meeting board expectations? A strong board chair will make every seat count by enforcing bylaws that call for the removal of members who do not make meeting attendance requirements or are otherwise not fulfilling the expectations of board membership. These conversations should be approached thoughtfully and carefully and provide an opportunity for the member to make a graceful transition from the board, potentially into another volunteer role within the organization with a lesser time commitment. Similar conversations should be had with members as they reach their term limit as determined in the organization’s bylaws.

    Addressing board disengagement and term limits will create room for new board members, presenting an opportunity to deepen the organization’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity at the governance level. A strong board chair will task the board with revisiting the ideal board composition for the organization, ensuring that it is diverse and representative of the community, and make needed adjustments to member recruitment strategies. The board chair also should be responsible for creating a boardroom environment that allows all members to have equal voice. Organizations struggling to diversify their boards or provide an equity culture should seek outside sources, beginning with answering these initial questions from BoardSource.

Nonprofit resiliency is not a buzzword; it is hard work. With board chairs focused on best practices in nonprofit governance, including a willingness to support the executive director and lead others toward shared goals, nonprofits will weather this uncertain time ready for greater impact. This is their time to lead.

Erin Hedges founded Hedges in 2002. The Indianapolis consulting firm is focused on increasing nonprofit capacity and impact. Hedges, who is passionate about board leadership, currently serves as Board Chair for Dove House and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Alumni Board. She also is a past Chair for Joy’s House.

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