April 4, 2020
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:3-5
When you're leading a faith-based organization through a crisis, priorities can turn upside down as you work to respond to the immediate needs of the moment. Perhaps you're faced with a sudden cash flow shortage? Maybe a difficult personnel decision? Perhaps a long-term project suddenly collapses?
Whatever the circumstance, your decisions must be commensurate with your duty—to execute on the mission that your board of directors entrusted you with. As someone who’s served on several nonprofit boards over the past 40 years, and as a nonprofit CEO for 30 of those years, I’ve been blessed to learn some things that work and some that do not when it comes to board engagement.
Below are five duties that every faith-based leader owes to their board to maximize their potential, especially during a time of crisis.
When you’re running a faith-based nonprofit, it’s important to remember that your faith is why you started. It’s also why your board members are serving. Don’t be afraid to ask your board to pray for specific things, especially when a crisis forces decisions that are particularly difficult or painful (such as having to let team members go due to budget cuts). Find solace in prayer and encourage your board members to do the same.
Don’t assume your board knows anything about your team’s immediate challenges and needs. While you’re in the trenches, your board members are at the command center waiting for information from the front. It’s your duty to package and distill that information so they can make timely, strategic decisions.
To that end, decisive action requires concise information. When communicating with your board, especially during times of crisis, lead with the BLUF (bottom line up front). Board members operate on a need to know basis and rarely have time during a crisis for in-depth analysis. Tell them exactly what they need to know on the front end and fill in the details on the back end. If you believe you can’t do that because there’s too much information to share, then you haven’t been adequately present with your board!
Tell them the two to three things you need most at the current moment. It might be the same things you asked them to pray about, which means your direct appeal carries with it the appropriate weight. For example, if you're forced to thin your ranks due to budget cuts, you need your board fully behind you. You can’t enter a situation where a disgruntled staff member is calling board members behind your back to accuse you of wrongful termination. Even if your personnel decisions aren’t personal, they can feel personal to those on the receiving end.
But remember, use prudence to decide when direct appeals are necessary vs. superfluous. Otherwise, you might overwhelm your board with unnecessary details.
As I mentioned in my previous post about leadership during a time of crisis, it’s helpful to think through situations as a series of phases. When it comes to the “first phase” of financial decisions, the buck stops with you. As an executive director or CEO, you should be empowered and entrusted to make financial decisions during the immediate timeline of a crisis.
For example, it’s prudent to rework your budget when austerity measures are necessary. Since you’re managing the budget on a day-to-day basis, you will know what is essential vs. non-essential for operations. Nevertheless, your board will need to ultimately approve your austerity budget for strategic, long-term projections, the “second phase” of financial planning. Be sure to show your board that you did your homework during the first phase of financial planning so they can focus their time and energy on the second phase.
You want to utilize the life experience that the members of the board have that you do not have. Each board member was asked to serve because they possess something you do not: be it high-level contacts, financial resources, subject expertise, reputation, and more.
A time of crisis is when you capitalize on why your members were brought on the board. Think through how each board member can be useful to your organization’s mission and reach out to them accordingly. Board members want to be helpful, but if you do not ask, you will not receive.
If you keep these duties in mind, I am confident that you will find your board motivated to help you and your team advance your mission. And always remember, without Christ you can do NO-thing (John 15:5). Trust in Him and your board members will place their trust in you.
Alan E. Sears, Founder of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Board Member of Napa Legal Institute (NLI). Mr. Sears is also Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Counselor for Kingdom Alliance Builders, a not-for-profit corporation providing non-legal consultation and business strategies to leaders of ministries, apostolates, and other faith-based entities.