Christie Peck, trustee of the Peck Foundation, offers insights on the rapidly evolving characteristics of board governance and leadership, informed by conversations with board members from five small to mid-sized organizations in Detroit, Richmond, and Baltimore.
Like you, I have listened with alarm to the steady stream of canceled performances and programs at arts organizations throughout the country. Although I had a chance to speak directly with a number of staff members during the early days of COVID-19, I began to wonder how the boards of these organizations were responding.
Board leaders from five small to medium-sized nonprofits in Detroit, Baltimore, and Richmond generously agreed to share their experiences with me. Many of these organizations were focused on youth and community arts education. Our conversations were fascinating, wide-ranging, and covered more topics than I can squeeze into a single blog post but here are a few takeaways that captured my attention.
More than just the numbers…
Storytelling is all the rage in fundraising seminars but does anyone give credit to the Finance Committee for telling the story of an organization? When one trustee stated with enthusiasm, “we have a powerhouse leading the finance committee,” he wasn’t just appreciating the individual’s ability to help navigate the complexities of a PPP application or finesse scenario planning, he was also pointing to the way the financials can reflect the nonprofit’s mission.
A truly transparent budgeting process led by board and staff in an open and honest dialogue can strengthen an organization’s ability to survive the shockwaves of the pandemic. Being explicit with your projection assumptions, attaching concise and thoughtful narrative, sharing this information well in advance of any decision making – all these budgeting processes help reveal the answers to burning questions all staff and board members want and need to know, especially in a period of organizational stress. What are our priorities? How are we fulfilling our mission? How are we supporting our staff/teaching artists/the kids, etc.?
As a funder, I have always subscribed to the belief that if you really want to know what’s going on, skip the narrative and read the budget. An exaggeration for sure, but these board leaders have come to understand the value of a budget that addresses today’s major financial challenges and, at the same time, tells a story to the people who care the most.
COVID Silver Lining Example: “During this period, we have begun putting improved information management and preservation processes in place, providing clear documentation of how funds are being used and more efficient opportunities for knowledge transfer.”
Using the budgeting process as a tool to inform and inspire the board was just one of the many engagement stories I heard during these calls. Without exception, interviewees described their board colleagues as well-informed, deeply engaged, and supportive. Many routinely ask, “what more can I do to help?”
Did this happen overnight? Not really.
Respect for the CEO and staff, good communication flow, and strong board recruitment practices were typically in place before the pandemic struck. The crisis has invigorated these boards and enhanced participation.
How did they achieve this? Many put small structural changes in place such as improved use of working committees; increased communication such as a weekly round-up distributed by the executive committee; and personal trustee-to-trustee phone calls. Receiving information in real-time has helped board members feel more connected to the mission and encouraged them to participate in creative problem-solving.
By embracing the maxim that change moves at the speed of trust, board members and staff put time and energy into building new relationships and strengthening old ones. These were small changes with a big impact.
COVID Silver Lining Example: “In the past, we insisted that all board meetings be in person. It was part of our culture. But virtual meetings have increased attendance dramatically and we expect to maintain some element of this going forward.”
“Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast…”
Do these five organizations have a secret weapon that will enable them to survive and thrive in the years ahead? I don’t pretend to know. I will say that they all have a strong organizational culture embedded in their DNA that has enabled them to navigate this crisis. Their shared values and beliefs have guided them through uncharted territory where the strategic plan has gone out the window and a global pandemic puts life itself in question.
At a time when we are all looking for a ray of hope, I feel deeply honored to have shared these uplifting conversations with five inspiring board leaders. Together with their talented and committed staff, they are leading an arts organization that will help us, as one leader said, “make sense of what’s happening in the world.”
Trustee, Peck Foundation
Christie Peck is a former nonprofit executive with experience in management and advisory roles with creative enterprises from the Midwest to the East Coast and a current trustee for the Peck Foundation.