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NGOs, Charities & Foundations

NGO Board Chairs: Providing a True North

  • June 2020

While all organizations are pondering how they will get back to business, NGO Boards face the unique challenge of not just supporting the management teams operationally, but addressing the larger societal questions of their industry: What is our mission post-COVID-19? How must our tactics change? What does the world need from us right now? Egon Zehnder gathered Board chairs from Northeastern NGOs for a discussion about the challenges they face, what they’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to glean silver linings from the turmoil of recent months. We found that Boards have played an invaluable role in looking beyond the disruptions to maintain a focus on the bigger picture. Board chairs have been the primary interface with the CEO for these discussions.

Mission Critical

As social distancing caused us to rethink the very basic ways we engage with each other as a society, one of the most pressing topics facing NGO Boards is mission. For some, the pandemic clarified their existing mission and underscored its relevance. “I think of us as being somewhat fortunate in this situation because our mission is very important in today’s world and in the context of this crisis,” said the chair of one media-related NGO. “The world needs us now, and our local community needs us more than ever.”

But for others, the crisis has created a moment of reflection. “Strategically, the question that we are asking first, is our mission still relevant? I think you have to ask yourself that fundamental question in a post-COVID world,” said one Board chair. “The strategies that I have been employing to achieve my mission, are those the right strategies? Some of those strategies are still on point and some of them are not the right strategies for the environment we are in. That leads to the question: How do we complete a paradigm shift? How do we really think about doing things differently?”

One example of doing things differently came from a nonprofit humanitarian organization. “I’m thinking about using technology for our revenue model to execute across a broader geography, to reach more stakeholders, and to develop broader partnerships with local NGOs across the region.”

Supporting the Staff

Several of the chairs commented on their role in galvanizing the Board to help support the staff, “serving as a director is not a spectator sport,” and directors have stepped up their engagement in more frequent calls and to supply skills in short supply, such as crisis management and financial support. On the other hand, the chairs are conscious that Board demands can be very taxing on their staff and take up a lot of time. As a result, we have heard from Board chairs that it is better for them to take on the burden of regular dialogue with CEO and communicate regularly to the broader Board as a more efficient use of time and management resources, a sentiment we have heard echoed by our CEO clients. Board chairs also recognized their role in the more tactical day-to-day experience of the NGOs. Many focused on the need to support the CEO, executive leadership, and even staff as they navigate the big changes.

“One of the things that I have noted in our roles as Board leaders is that it is critically important that we are there for the executive leadership on a constant basis,” said one. “I try as much as possible to be here as a sounding board and a bit of an escape valve. The pressure on people on the frontlines in executive roles of all of this is unprecedented.” As the dislocations have extended, anxiety has risen at all levels threatening staff morale. Leader’s messages are carefully scrutinized, and Board chairs have helped their CEOs balance between positive messages of resilience and forthrightness, as staff and stakeholders know that financial pressures are real and growing.

Encouraging emotional intelligence in management has also been stimulated by the Board. One chair shared this his organization has a relatively new CEO, and one of the key elements she brought to the crisis was EQ, helping to reassure employees during an anxious period. “The fact that we are being led right now by someone who has this innate skillset is very important,” the chair shared.

This chair is not alone, as many organizations found themselves with CEOs who had only been on the job a few weeks or months before the pandemic took hold. “We had a very well planned CEO transition that happened last September, but she had
her first three months and then the pandemic hit, so we have been working with a new CEO, who is doing a great job, but obviously this is not the environment she thought she would be going into,” said one Board chair. Board leadership has been mindful of helping the new CEO create a connection with other executive leaders at a time when all contact had moved to virtual, she said.

But even as that relationship has solidified, the Board chair worried over other issues in the ranks. “My question is that messy middle of the organization and how to work effectively lower in the organization to get the work done.” For NGOs, the mission rather than compensation typically motivates staff, so thinking strategically about ways to maintain culture and the exchange of ideas in a virtual environment has become a critical issue. Several Board chairs expressed concern about motivation and morale among staffers and volunteers who are often energized by group contact in offices and other in-person events. How can that culture of caring be sparked and maintained if remote work and social distancing are still prevalent?

Lessons Learned

One of the most difficult realities that many NGOs will face is that while many were able to take advantage of financial assistance programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, to continue to compensate employees, these are temporary solutions, and many organizations will be forced to lay off employees or convert full-time employees to part-time roles. “The pandemic has blown some major holes, mostly in the revenue line of the budget,” a chair shared. “Sometimes the dialogue about needing to do things differently, or to stop doing things because of market forces, does not sit well with people who are very mission oriented. I think the biggest challenge has been to really stimulate a dialogue about that.”

There’s also the financial impact on the communities these organizations serve to consider. For example, one Board chair explained that the mission of his organization focuses on underserved populations, and they’ve had to rethink how they can continue to provide aid with fewer resources coming in.

This puts additional pressure on fundraising, spurring organizations to find creative ways to handle fundraising. “We converted our gala into a virtual event. We raised more money from all over the U.S. than we ever had in our fancy fundraisers in the city,” said one New York-based Board chair.

COVID-19 will have an ongoing impact on the way NGOs secure support, said another. Fundraising will be comprised of smaller projects going forward, he said. “Large events cannot take place anymore, and we need to find more creativity.”

Others noted that while large NGOs may have the resources to weather the disruption in traditional fundraising, smaller organizations might have a much tougher time. “That will bring casualties of some of the smaller NGOs,” said one Board chair. “I worry about the arts.”

Silver Linings

Still, many Board chairs were able to see “silver linings” in the disruption. “I do believe heavily in silver linings, and there are clearly silver linings coming out of this for all organizations,” said one. “One of them is that clearly this has served as an accelerant for change and the need for more creative out of the box thinking. Things that would ordinarily take years now take months to get to the other side of.”

Another environmental leader literally saw the silver lining by looking out the window, seeing residents safely enjoying NGO-supported public green spaces. “I could not possibly have designed a program that demonstrated the value of this organization more than COVID has,” the chair shared.

And more noted that even amid the damage of the crisis, the experience has produced skills that will benefit NGOs and the communities they serve going forward, as well as created new ways of operating—not just simply temporary crisis adaptations. “Clearly the fact that we all learned is that people can operate more differently than we ever imagined,” said one. “Other silver linings will be that we will make change quicker and come up with different approaches than we otherwise would have.”

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