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  • Otto Reinisch

Leading in Crisis: The New Work of Nonprofit Boards [Part I]

In times of crisis, nonprofit boards push aside business-as-usual to concentrate on more urgent matters at hand, grappling with complicated, rapidly changing issues that defy easy solutions. Welcome to the ‘new work’ of nonprofit boards. In this three-part series, I’m examining how high-functioning nonprofit boards keep their organizations relevant by quickly identifying, aligning resources around, and measuring what matters most.

Part I: Identify What Matters Most

Nonprofit organizations remain relevant in times of crisis only when they provide what matters to their constituents. And, over the past few months, what matters most has changed.

Make room for the ‘new work’ of nonprofit boards: a nimble, collaborative process of “figuring out what’s really happening,”1 or, what matters most to your stakeholders.

The process begins by reconsidering the board:staff relationship.

Together, the CEO and the board must agree on the institution’s priorities and strategic direction, or what matters most. New work requires new rules of engagement and unorthodox ways of fulfilling a board’s responsibilities. The pressures on most nonprofits today are too great for the old model to suffice” 2 where CEOs provide answers and boards keep watch.

More than ever, it’s incumbent on every board member to develop expertise and their own perspectives about what matters most. Today it’s easier (and cheaper) than ever for board members to access a bumper crop of high-quality resources that, before the pandemic, were expensive and only available to a few. Now, they are free and open to everyone. Webinars. YouTube videos. Zoom meetings. Articles.

No longer is it acceptable for board members to silently sit at meetings. Every informed voice and every perspective needs to be heard.

Consultants and external experts help, too, even in our age of ‘social distancing’. They can provide information specific to your organization using interactive online tools and resources that encourage and facilitate participation. They also can help focus attention on unpopular issues and help leaders understand the effect of changes in both internal and external environments.

Next, the CEO is not exempt from ‘new rules of engagement’. “The litmus test of the chief executive’s leadership is not the ability to solve problems alone but the capacity to articulate key questions and guide a collaborative effort to formulate answers.” 3

Especially in the midst of crisis, effective CEOs create an institutional culture where a spirit of inquiry reigns and where questions are valued more than easy answers.

Finally, the most effective way to identify what matters most is through meaningful dialogue with stakeholders. The new work of nonprofit boards is relational work done in person, over time, and around shared values. With minimal training, every board member should engage with stakeholders in structured dialogue that yields answers to the biggest question of all, “What matters most?”

NEXT WEEK: Part II / Organize Around What Matters Most


1 McGinn, Daniel. “Leading, Not Managing, in Crisis.” Harvard Business Review, 1 June 2020, pp. 34–35.

2 Taylor, Barbara E.; Chait, Richard P.; Holland, Thomas P. “The New Work of Nonprofit Boards.” Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1996.

3 Ibid

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