I Didn’t Sign Up for This. Now What?

By Nanette Fridman

Being a board chair in ordinary times is challenging. There are numerous relationships to manage, meetings to co-design and lead, areas requiring oversight, and planning and evaluating to be done. There is no question that being at the helm of a nonprofit board is a major investment of time and energy. At the same time, most board chairs have day jobs, a family and other commitments to juggle as well. When done well, a tenure as chair stretches and challenges the best of them with the multitude of stakeholders and demands, and the complexity of leading a nonprofit organization.

Since March 2020, board leaders, both executives and volunteers, like the rest of us, have added to their responsibilities and roles dealing with COVID and its many implications for the organization and its staff, programs, fundraising, operations and governance. For some board chairs who were in the last year of their term, COVID made for a disruptive and rocky ending. As one board chair shared who ended her term in June, “I couldn’t have sustained the intensity of March to June for another month.”

With summer ended, and September in full swing, we welcome many new board chairs on the scene. For organizations with intentional succession planning where there is a first and even a second vice chair named in advance, sometimes six to nine years out, the path has been long and awaited. In less planful organizations, the chairs selection may have more recent but nonetheless, happened probably before March.

Bottom line: being board chair during a pandemic is not something the vast supermajority of board chairs signed up for.

But, this is where we are so here’s what we can do.

  1. Acknowledge the Difficulty of the Situation. Board chairs and executives should have an open and honest conversation around how each are feeling about, and handling, the pandemic. What is the impact on their families, jobs and lives?
  1. Set Explicit Expectations for Communication, Meetings and Boundaries. Here are some useful questions: How often will you meet? How often, and how will you communicate in-between meetings? Are there days and times you are not available? Would you rather get questions and information as it comes, or collected and grouped together?
  1. Get Your Board Chair More Help.
    • Executive Committee. Many board chairs are reporting that they are leaning heavily on their executive committees because of the emergent nature of Covid and how quickly things are moving; the abundance of work needing to get done in between board meetings; work that doesn’t have a current home; and the need to support the executive director or CEO.
    • Vice-Chairs. If you have vice-chairs without portfolios – or with portfolios and capacity to do more – have a conversation about specific roles or tasks they may be able and willing to take on.
    • Ad Hoc Committees, Working Groups or Task Forces – Discuss if you need additional groups to handle in-depth work related to Covid and its impact. For example, many organizations had a Covid advisory group comprised of health experts. Do you need a group to review your strategic plan in light of Covid and your scenario planning? Do you need a group to explore the building and facilities implications of Covid?
    • Board Members – Many boards expect board members to serve on at least one committee. Make sure your committees are relevant at this moment in time and, if the board or staff need additional help, consider asking board members to adopt a Covid Initiative or Plus Project from a menu.
    • The Immediate Past Chair – While the immediate past chair just finished and is probably fatigued, they are the person who has the best understanding of the job, and depending the timing, the current situation. Discuss how they will stay involved; explicitly ask about roles, tasks and time commitments.
    • A Mentor – Seasoned organizational and community board leaders, especially those who have led during other crises e.g. 9/11, the Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina for those in NOLA etc., can be invaluable resources. Ask for mentorship.
    • A Coach – A professional coach can help board chairs – and board chairs and executives together sometimes – clarify roles and expectations, help prioritize competing needs, set goals, brainstorm about designing and facilitating meetings, discuss fundraising and practice for solicitations, examine committee structures and charges, and all around – be a sounding board.

The board chair of course is working in partnership with the professional executive who also needs additional help and support. Like they say on the airplane, each needs to put on their own oxygen mask first before they can be there for each other.

During this time, may we all be inspired by the Jewish Proverb, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

Nanette R. Fridman is a veteran organizational strategist and leadership coach. She is the President of Fridman Strategies, Inc. and a partner in Working Wonders. Nanette is the author of two books about nonprofit board leadership, On Board and Holding the Gavel. She can be reached at fridmanstrategies@gmail.com