In short:

  • Board members are your most vocal and loyal supporters, and they can amplify your message
  • Here are 6 principles of getting your message out when time is tight and data may be incomplete
  • Does your board display these 5 traits of a strong, resilient culture?

Nonprofit leaders must keep donors engaged during any crisis. Just as important, though, is ensuring board members are enthusiastically fighting for your cause. That means getting one message out to your most important supporters: Our constituents’ needs do not decrease, and the urgency of our cause does not fade.

And in fact, for most nonprofits, both need and urgency are heightened.

The success with which any organization weathers a crisis is based on five factors, says Elizabeth Williams, cofounder of the Academy of Business Communications. Do stakeholders feel their work is still connected to the purpose of the organization? Do they still feel like part of a team, or have weeks or months of distance eroded bonds? Did the organization’s culture act as a touchstone through the crisis? Do your stakeholders have accurate, honest information?

And finally, does its purpose and vision shine like a beacon?

”Think well past the end of the crisis and imagine how your organization and people will rise in whatever the new normal looks like,” says Williams.

Communicating accurate information that likely reflects a difficult reality while keeping that vision of rising up may be difficult to think about now. However, your board needs to hear from you.

For some nonprofit leaders, crisis communication is second nature. But if not, guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via its Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual is very relevant.

CERC lays out six principles to communicate with tight time constraints and sometimes incomplete information:

  1. Be first. The first source of communication often becomes the source against which all others are measured. For nonprofits, you want to promptly reach out to stakeholders before other causes engage their attention.
  2. Be right. Accuracy is critical to credibility. If you don’t know exactly what’s happening, say so.
  3. Be credible. Honesty is fundamental to maintaining trust.
  4. Express empathy. Emotion cannot be countered with facts. People must first know that their leaders care. As a nonprofit leader, you have credibility here.
  5. Promote action. Giving people something specific to do restores a sense of control over out-of-control circumstances.
  6. Show respect. Lack of respect for a public in crisis undermines trust.

If you can do all this in the context of the cause, you’re serving your community well.

”It is important that nonprofit leaders continue to focus on the mission during times of uncertainty,” said Gary Kelsey, faculty member for Walden University’s PhD in Public Policy and Administration program. ”In fact, it might be an opportunity to communicate how issues like the coronavirus, a presidential election or a possible recession might further impact an already vulnerable population.”

Kelsey, who specializes in nonprofit organizational behavior, program and board development, strategic planning and fundraising, advises nonprofit leaders to keep it personal by reminding individual board members of their power to effect positive change. That also goes for corporate donors, which are highly responsive to changes in fiscal policy.

Other keys to success with board engagement:

Lay a Foundation of Trust

Trust in leadership is fundamental and needs to be maintained throughout the lifecycle of a board member, from the very first recruitment effort to beyond the end of active board participation. That provides currency when a crisis hits.

”It’s important to share information openly, even when bad news may be involved,” said Sarah Fonder-Kristy, Chief Development Officer for Atlanta Community Food Bank. Sharing good news is easy. But not all nonprofit leaders are equally frank about challenges, and that shortchanges your board.

Nurturing trust among board members also means addressing conflicts as they arise to ensure negativity doesn’t get out of hand and leave individuals feeling estranged. This can happen during uncertain times and when new members, especially younger people with fresh ideas, come on board.

”Each generation of board directors brings unique skills, weaknesses, preferences and biases to their work as directors,” said Chuck Underwood, who trains fundraising professionals in generational fundraising strategies. ”There can be combativeness between the generations.”

Nonprofit leaders need to head this off at the pass. All board members have the charitable cause in common. Build on that, and establish rules of engagement early on.

”One strategy for maximizing the board-to-board or board-to-staff relationship is to create and implement a board orientation prior to a new board member’s first meeting,” said Walden University’s Kelsey. ”This will provide the boundaries, clarity, tools and resources needed for board members to do their jobs.”

Put a Human Face on Board Efforts

Relationships of any kind require mutual respect, aligned goals and shared accountability. Proactively fostering a truly collaborative board is essential to success, and often that means contact with those being served.

”I have learned to involve those at the board level while empowering staff and beneficiaries from the community being served,” said Shyam Krishna Iyer, founder of SKI Charities, a nonprofit that works to empower the economically excluded around the world.

Consider HauteBird, a chicken-and-waffles pop-up based in Sacramento, Calif., that hires exclusively through City of Refuge Sacramento, which provides emergency and transitional housing; a range of counseling and recovery services; and personal development classes for women, children, at-risk youth and young adults. These employees put a very real face on City of Refuge for hundreds of HauteBird customers.

Strong Board Cultures Translate to Resiliency in Crisis
In Leading With Intent’s report on Nonprofit Board Practices, executives identified five top touchstones of a strong board culture. If these aren’t evident in your board, the report provides guidance to improve.
1 2 3 4 5
Board members listen attentively and respectfully to each other The board encourages, supports, and listens to creative and innovative suggestions. Board members have the interests of the organization uppermost in discussions, rather than the interests of their personal agendas. Each member has a clear vision that inspires him or her to work with enthusiasm and commitment. The board is able to resolve internal conflicts in a professional, positive way, allowing progress to be made.
Source: Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices

While some nonprofits, such as those serving survivors of domestic violence, may not be able to bring residents together with board members, that doesn’t mean there can’t be real relationships.

”The director of a shelter whose board I sit on regularly reads letters from women and children who have passed through the program and achieved independence,” said one active board member of a Boston-area transitional housing program. ”Sometimes, the kids make drawings. It’s a powerful connection and driver to continue our advocacy.”

Remember, board members, like your donors and employees, appreciate seeing the results of their efforts. That’s especially true in down times, when positivity can be hard to come by.

”It is important for organizational leaders to remember that board members are ultimately volunteers,” said Dr. Kelsey. ”While they are fiscally, legally and morally responsible for the organization, board members need the same level of care as a volunteer would in any other role.”

Individualize Outreach and Roles

The relationship between board members and nonprofit leaders won’t work if it’s one-size-fits-all and communication flows only one way.

”Helping each board member find their niche within the organization communicates to each individual that their talents are honored and acknowledged,” said Kelsey. ”I believe it is important for organizational leadership to meet individually with each board member at least once per year to gain input, evaluate the role and learn more about the organization from the board member’s perspective.”

One-on-one and inclusive communication is even more important when in crisis mode. As much as is practical, Butler recommends including board members in everything your organization does — invite them to events, ask them to attend program days, engage them in thanking donors, even if all that now happens virtually.

”It is important to make sure that board members’ experience serving your cause is mutually beneficial,” he said. ”These types of interactions create a lasting bond that will sustain well beyond a single board term or one-time monetary gift.”

In terms of communication, publicly acknowledging members’ work in your press and community outreach instills a sense of pride and belonging; where possible, link their efforts to successful projects or outcomes.

”Keeping the public and your advocates apprised of how your cause is engaging with critical issues can maintain support and showcase the value your organization is adding to society,” Butler said.

Select Board Members for the Right Reasons

Serving on a board is serious work, especially in challenging times, and nonprofit leaders must resist efforts to add members for the wrong reasons.

”Donor relationships and board relationships, while inherently interlinked, are all too often treated as one and the same,” said Alexander Burns, partner at Research & Innovation Co, a consultancy whose philanthropy practice serves charitable organizations and corporations seeking to develop a formalized charitable giving program. ”A successful nonprofit’s board should not be comprised of a group of the largest donors simply because they are donors.”

To put it another way, populating a nonprofit board with major donors is tantamount to a corporation staffing its board with representatives of its major suppliers. While they may have a vested interest in the success of the organization, and without their support, the organization could not function, they are not inherently the best people to decide issues of long-term strategy and management.

Burns warns nonprofits he works with that donors and board members have their own perspectives and agendas that may or may not be in sync with the nonprofit’s views, plans and goals.

”Unless a donor’s individual contributions represent such a significant source of funding that they are a deterministic stakeholder, giving them a disproportionate say in the governance of a non-profit can lead to issues of mission drift and lack of objectivity,” Burns said.

Populating the board with large donors can also set the stage for ongoing discord within the governing ranks.

”By separating the roles of a governance board and an advisory board, nonprofits can build better relationships with their donors because they are asking them only the questions that are best asked to donors and leaving other issues to objectively credentialed decision-makers,” Burns said.

Put Forward a Call To Action

Finally, CERC points out that avoiding feelings of helplessness is a vital communication objective during a crisis. Your board members have power to effect change, or they would not have been selected to serve. But if they start to forget that, they may become less motivated and less able to take actions that could help your cause.

Instead of trying to counter an emotional response to a crisis, set your board member on a mission. Taking action during a crisis can help to restore a sense of control and overcome feelings of helplessness, according to CERC, which says that actions should be constructive and directly relate to the crisis. These actions may be symbolic, such as wearing a pin or ribbon denoting your cause, or preparatory, such as donating blood or creating a family check-in plan.

”Our director reaches out to the board with very specific needs, such as personal care products or bedding, or time spent sorting donations,” says the board member for the transitional housing nonprofit. ”There’s an ask that’s accessible for anyone. During a crisis, especially one like the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person work is challenging, board members can help remotely by writing to legislators. The best antidote for helplessness is action.”

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker’s published work appears in many leading print and online publications including Security Boulevard, PCMag, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO, TechTarget, and InformationWeek, as well as many others. Her latest book is ”Data Divination: Big Data Strategies.” She’s also a popular speaker at technology conferences as well as specialty conferences such as the Excellence in Journalism events and a medical research and healthcare event at the NY Academy of Sciences.