Board Governance Turbulent Times

Grasping Governance in Turbulent Times

Under a deluge of dreary news about Syrian refugees, mass shootings, and state budget crises, it’s hard to keep spirits bright this season. Division in the US over race relations, gun control, mental health services, and tax structure shows everywhere from Capital Hill to the classroom, where even underfunded pre-schools spend shrinking resources on armed intruder drills. As human service and community needs mount, weary nonprofit leaders gear up for year-end asks that must be used in part to bridge existing funding gaps, rather than support new initiatives.

And all this fills the boardroom.

Faced with crucial decisions about where to lead, whom to serve, what to cut, and sometimes when to close doors, board members must overcome increasing obstacles to do their expanding jobs. Not only are they expected to serve their constituents, but they are asked to look out for the rest of us, too.

Nell Edgington, President of Social Velocity, reminds us in these troubled times when “…we must fight (the) darkness,” that “the nonprofit sector must lead us there.”

She conjures Mr. Rogers, who famously recommended we “look for the helpers” after horrific acts, rather than focus on fear and violence in their aftermath. He encouraged attention on those making the world a better place and Edgington reminds us those doing so are, in large part, nonprofits.

The prolonged budget stalemates in Pennsylvania and Illinois are bringing growing attention to the indispensable role of nonprofits in our society. Five months is an interminable length of time to be without expected and essential funding to schools, health clinics, social services and more. (Surely, many for-profit businesses would struggle to float for so long without revenue, but likely have more ready access to reserves or bank financing.) As their most vulnerable constituents suffer – without child care, for instance, or even food — nonprofit leaders struggle to keep their organizations operational.

As cited in Nonprofit Quarterly, these leaders are working together to champion their collective cause. As one nonprofit executive explained, “We have to get the word out to the community and the Legislature and remind them what we do: the work that government can’t or won’t do.”

Grasp that. Nonprofits aren’t just doing “good,” they’re doing necessity. Charitable nonprofits deliver services that a government is unable to provide for its citizens.

Given that stunning responsibility, one nonprofit is considering a lawsuit to force the State to fund certain of those essential services. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, Lawyers for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania also are exploring whether counties can redirect money they collect for the State toward human services.

That creative approach brings us back to the noble and critical work of the board. Generative thinking in recognition of constituents’ dire needs enables the County Commissioners Association to increase its impact without straying from its mission. Furthermore, no matter when – and how – the budget impasses end, nonprofit boards will be left with an aftermath. Service backlogs, reduced and/or drained staff, irreplaceable clients and/or funds, and more will complicate organizations’ efforts to recover from this prolonged crisis and influence board agendas.

With that in mind, boards can prepare and prevail by considering some of the best practices that already enhance high-performing boards in a broader context. For example:

That creative approach brings us back to the noble and critical work of the board. Generative thinking in recognition of constituents’ dire needs enables the County Commissioners Association to increase its impact without straying from its mission. Furthermore, no matter when – and how – the budget impasses end, nonprofit boards will be left with an aftermath. Service backlogs, reduced and/or drained staff, irreplaceable clients and/or funds, and more will complicate organizations’ efforts to recover from this prolonged crisis and influence board agendas.

  1. With that in mind, boards can prepare and prevail by considering some of the best practices that already enhance high-performing boards in a broader context. For example:
    1. Be clear about your organization’s mission. Your mission should serve as your compass, enabling you to consider every detour as a path to either get you closer to – or take you further from – your intended destination. Regularly reviewing your core purpose and ensuring its alignment with your constituents’ needs can help you add greater value and avoid mission creep, in search of dollars, when times are tough.
    2. Clarify core values. While your mission determines where you’re going, your organization’s core beliefs inform how you get there, who will join you, and how you will make hard decisions. When there is clarity and consensus around them, they can serve as a filter or litmus test for board decisions.
    3. Align annual goals with organizational capacity. Even when human and financial resources are not threatened, the board’s ongoing discussion should include exploration of what sudden changes could mean not only for the budget, but for program outcomes, projected growth, and every promise made.
    4. Manage risk. Amidst growing buzz about risk, look at the whole organization, not just the trendy topics. Cybersecurity and investment management attract much attention these days, but what about the front door? Boards must ensure the safety and security of allthe organization’s assets.
    5. Communicate. The boardroom is the last place to expect any surprises, even in a crisis. Senior staff and board leadership must communicate regularly, keeping channels open with the board, as well. Stakeholders also are an important part of the equation, as they expect to be kept informed and reassured by an accountable board.
    6. Advocate. You know your mission and your goals, so cultivate the support you need to achieve them. Nonprofits must campaign not only for their constituents, but also for themselves. Furthermore, if the nonprofit sector is to lead a fight against “darkness,” no organization can go it alone.

     

No doubt the turbulence around us is distracting, but perhaps it also offers an opportunity for boards to buckle down, focus, re-affirm (their missions, their policies and procedures) and re-group with better practices for a happier, healthier new year.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.