4 Tips on Being a Knockout Nonprofit Board Leader, Especially in Times of Uncertainty

If you serve on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization, your leadership, vision, and initiative are more important than ever.

Are you keeping up with how the sector is both evolving and being impacted by, well, everything as we head into 2021?

Your nonprofit’s approach to its mission may have had to bend and flex in 2020, especially in the face of so much uncertainty.

Now, of course, some of these variables are a little less uncertain—we know who our next U.S. president will be, a couple coronavirus vaccines seem to have efficacy rates above 90 percent, the machinations of our economy and society are still functioning, to name a few—and what remains undone—racial equity, a divided nation, addressing poverty, climate change, among other issues—is more visible than ever. How is your nonprofit organization moving forward in 2021?

Now is your moment to lead.

Here are four areas where you and your fellow board members would be wise to focus.

  1. Issues on the horizon. Take a deep breath and reflect on this long, arduous year. What are the issues your nonprofit is now facing, both internally and externally? Where has this year strengthened your team’s capabilities? Where has it weakened the nonprofit organization? How is your staff doing? How are your constituents doing? How are your financial reserves? What do your donors and audiences need from your nonprofit organization moving forward? How will your mission, and thus program strategy, need to evolve?

Action: Be a knockout board member by raising these issues along with ideas on how the nonprofit organization might address them. Remember to be solution-oriented so as not to overwhelm the staff with yet more problems.

  • Recasting your strategy. Face it. No matter what may be in your three to five-year strategic plan—this tool itself an antiquated notion—is obsolete. The world has shifted. Our societal priorities have changed. Your staff structure—and thus capabilities—may have changed. Your constituents may have new needs. Therefore, it is time for a new strategy. Preferably a one-year to 18-month strategy. And be ready to refine it every 90-days.

Action: Spearhead a strategy process—on your own, if you have the skills, or with an outside resource who maintains objectivity and will ask tougher questions.

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion. 2020 surely held a mirror up to our nation to confront our past and the ways racism has been woven into key infrastructures of our society—from healthcare to housing, education to environmental justice. It is up to each of us to undo these injustices and create equity, elusive for many for too long.

What are your nonprofit organization’s hiring practices? What about board governance? Scroll through your nonprofit organization’s website and take a look at the headshots of staff and board members. Do you see diversity in ethnicity, age, gender, and sexual orientation? (And if names and photos are missing, consider adding so we know who you are.)

Do you see ways your nonprofit organization can take on prejudice and discrimination within the context of your mission? What needs to be dismantled or taken on, head on? Are your programs truly open and available to all, despite economic means? Are you providing programs and services that diverse audiences need and will find of value? Or are they simply initiatives that allow your nonprofit organization to check a box?

Years ago, working on a project that included qualitative research for an arts nonprofit organization, a focus group participant who represented a regional school district shared the kind of critique that hits you in the gut. She noted that often times Black, African American, and Latinx students have the sense that all the arts education programs offered by the region’s nonprofits were more for the arts nonprofit organizations than for them. Ouch.

Action: Identify at least one or two initiatives that the organization can take on and achieve success. Encourage the nonprofit organization to learning and lifting up the cloaks that may blind some to practices that inadvertently cause exclusion to people of color.

  • Build relationships. As you know, your personal and professional network is a tremendous asset to your own life and career. When you join a board, this social capital can also be tremendously valuable to the nonprofit. If you’re passionate about the mission and trust the executive director, resource development team, the other board members, and the programs the nonprofit organization offers, you’ll want to leverage your network here, too.

You may know potential donors. Or you may know professionals in positions to sponsor an event or underwrite a program.

Action: Have a conversation with the nonprofit organization’s CEO and development officer to brainstorm who the right prospects are, how best to engage them, and what the next steps should be.

Take initiative. Have the mindset that you and the other board members serve the nonprofit; it doesn’t serve you. The nonprofit organization’s leadership will appreciate it, especially at a time requiring all hands-on deck. Especially if 2021 turns out to be an awesome year.

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