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  • Otto Reinisch

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

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic drastically change our world, too many nonprofit organizations look and operate the same way, as if nothing has changed. Today’s challenges require nonprofit boards to re-think everything in order to keep their organization relevant.
Here are three ways the ‘new work’ of nonprofit boards can help your organization thrive in today’s rapidly changing environment by aligning precious, scarce resources around what matters most.
1. Align New Board:Staff Roles
Think of your organization as a ‘start up’. The question is not, “Is this an issue of policy [board] or implementation [staff]?” The question is, “Is the issue at hand important or unimportant, central or peripheral?” If there’s important work to be done, it becomes everyone’s job.
In the new work, board members and management work together on both policy and implementation. This may require “a board to have more than a few trustees with relevant professional expertise: physicians on a hospital’s board, academics on a college’s board, social workers on a clinic’s board. Expert trustees can guide fellow board members and management through a foreign culture.”1
2. Align Structure w/Substance [What Matters Most]
The organization’s leadership must be organized to deal with the institution’s priorities; substance must dictate structure. Committees, work groups, and task forces must mirror the institution’s strategic priorities. However, “nonprofit boards are as reluctant to forsake committees as faculty members and physicians are to eliminate departments.”2
A task force is one way new constituents and non-trustee experts can help tackle critical yet discrete matters such as outsourcing, re-aligning staff, allocating budgets, redesigning program delivery, serving new clients, and more.
Such ‘tissue paper’ groups (use and discard) can drive your organization toward real-time results, provide new leadership opportunities for fresh faces, and prevent longtime committee members from dominating as they preserve ‘the way we’ve always done it around here’.
Ad hoc membership on standing committees or a task force also is a way to quickly ‘on board’ expertise needed to tackle unique challenges.
3. Align Meetings w/Purpose
In the ‘new work’ of nonprofit boards, every meeting’s design is critically important. Discussion must center more on the explicit questions at hand – what matters most – and less on the routine work of approving reports, listening to staff updates, and reviewing old strategic plans.
And, to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, divide larger meetings into small groups or breakout sessions. This creates a more inviting environment for everyone to speak freely, providing a better climate for brainstorming, and for voicing unpopular topics.
Meaningful answers about your organization’s future only will come when the CEO promotes a spirit of inquiry, when opportunities are provided for everyone’s voice to be heard, and when the best minds contemplate what matters most.
NEXT WEEK: Part III / Evaluate & Measure What Matters Most
REVIEW: Part I / Identifying What Matters Most [click here]
1 Taylor, Barbara E.; Chait, Richard P.; Holland, Thomas P. “The New Work of Nonprofit Boards.” Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1996.
2 Ibid
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