Blog post by Ros Oakley, Chief Executive of Association of Chairs.

One of the most powerful comments I have heard recently about coronavirus is that we are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.

Charities, a bit like boats in a storm, find ourselves faced with huge, even deadly, forces that threaten to overwhelm us or drag us badly off course. Your boat may be small or large, with lots of crew or very few, with basic equipment or advanced. That will, of course, affect how this storm is hitting you and how you and your board need to respond. For some, it’s all about the short-term peril to those you serve (and to your own charity), for others the greatest concern is about the mid and long-term.

In the face of these challenges, many board members are finding themselves in a variety of roles including some they do not normally undertake. For example:

A. Bailing – here the focus is staying afloat and saving lives with all hands on deck.
B. Rowing or in the engine room – some are stepping into operational roles to add more capacity or capability to meet changing demand.
C. At the helm – in some cases, the Board is taking more active control of the day to day, with or without the consent of the CEO, perhaps because the CEO is ill, shielding or furloughed or perhaps the board is over-reaching itself.
D. Getting your bearings– taking time to take stock of your position and options.
E. Setting a new direction– agreeing on a new way forward.

Getting your bearings and setting direction is the natural domain of the board, and where it can add the most value. As Chair, it’s worth reflecting which roles your board is focusing on and ensure, whatever the challenges, that the board finds the critical capacity to focus on the strategic.

Changing board behaviours and needs

As you guide your board to focus on the strategic, you have your own obstacles to negotiate. Here are some changes in behaviour and needs to look out for:

1. Board members and key staff are personally affected – in terms of health, well-being or personal or financial circumstances. This means their priorities have changed. Perhaps your most active board members are no longer able to be active, or the emotional toll is driving changes in behaviour.

2. Disorientation – the scope and pace of change in many areas of life can make it difficult to focus.

3. There is a need for faster decision-making often with limited information (with varying levels of comfort with that).

4. There are changes in information needs especially the need for financial information.

5. Differing attitudes to risk are more apparent – some will be very cautious, especially if there is concern about personal liability, others more relaxed.

6. Emergence of new priorities e.g. heightened focus on staff well-being; business continuity planning, including loss of key people, or cybersecurity; and a need to let go of some old ones.

7. Board engagement is likely to have changed, and boundaries lost, many will have stepped forward, some may have stepped away.

8. Changing relationships with staff for better or worse, especially the CEO.

9. Changes in board dynamics within the board and the board with staff and other stakeholders e.g. an inner cabal may have formed; staff on furlough may feel disconnected, there could be resentment from staff who have still been working.

10. Loss of direction/momentum – the urgent and immediate is crowding out the long term and strategic.

Tips for working with your board team through the crisis

The following may help you as Chairs guide your board:

1. Show emotional intelligence – consider what is going on for your board members individually and collectively, and key staff members. How do you offer support to each other? Anxiety can manifest in many ways. Try to avoid displaced emotions becoming destructive e.g. making unreasonable or disproportionate demands. Some of those who came through the first part well may now find that fatigue is setting in. And that includes you – take care.

Expect and encourage new norms. Personal and work-life have never been more intertwined. You may need to recalibrate your expectations and tolerance of mistakes.

2. Help the board adjust mode. If you’ve been bailing/heavily involved is it time to step back?

3. Focus on those you serve- purpose first. Remember it’s not the survival of your organisation that is most important it’s finding the best way to serve your beneficiaries. How are you hearing from those you serve at this time? Have the conversation about how to balance the needs of current and future beneficiaries. Are there better ways to meet their needs- which may include partnerships or a merger? There is no shame in closing or merging a charity – the aim is to do it well.

4. Be strategic, step back, bring a different perspective. Especially a longer-term one. Consider techniques like scenario planning.

5. Look for paradigm shifts (for example by your beneficiaries, in fundraising approaches, your use of volunteers and who those volunteers are, or how to deliver your services) which mean you may need to radically change tack. Be bold in your thinking.

6. Decide and adjust. Don’t be paralysed by uncertainty, make decisions, but be ready for course adjustments.

7. Give your CEO and team space and support. Be focused in your requests. Avoid overburdening them with demands.

8. Attend to good governance essentials. The essentials of good governance still matter, for example:
• Refresh your opportunity and risk assessment.
• Have cash flow projections.
• Consider a time-limited board working group to focus on key issues.

We are all facing this storm in our different ways. As Chair, you can help you board find its purpose, work constructively together and make the key decisions. We can best weather the storm when we both seek and offer help to each other, where we can.

Additional tips and resources

For more information on chairing through coronavirus, join Association of Chairs’ online peer surgeries to share challenges and solutions with other Chairs.

A copy of NCVO’s webinar with Ros Oakley is now available to watch online.

Visit our coronavirus support page for the latest guidance and resources.

Association of Chairs is a membership organisation and registered charity which exists to support people chairing charities and not-for-profits in the UK. We welcome new members. You can also sign up for our e-newsletter to be kept informed.

For general guidance on chairing, you can download a free copy of A Chair’s Compass.