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Chairing a Not-for-Profit During COVID-19


Expert analysis from Jean Callanan, Founder of MomentaHub, and Chair of the Irish Hospice Foundation. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

I had never chaired a board during a pandemic before. So in my capacity as Chair of Irish Hospice Foundation I found myself, six months in, wondering whether there were things I, and we as a board, could be doing better.

I reached out to Chairs of other not-for-profits – David Bunworth, Chair of Glasnevin Trust; Dermot Breen, outgoing Chair of the Irish Cancer Society; Ita Mangan, Chair of Age and Opportunity; and Carol Ann Casey, outgoing Chair of the Central Remedial Clinic  – to talk to them individually about their experiences. The focus of our conversations was on the effective running of the board and its corporate governance functions during the pandemic, as opposed to how the individual organisations have fared at a broader level.

Here are the themes that arose:

Holding Steady on the Choppy Sea of COVID-19

These are challenging times for any organisation, and all Chairs agreed strongly the board has a vital role in keeping the ship steady and maintaining a focus on mission and vision. For some of the boards (particularly those dependent on donations from the public) there was a fine line to be toed between delivering services and keeping a beady eye on financial impact. All chairs were very conscious of the board’s responsibility to care for the physical and mental wellbeing of their people.

In one case there was a key decision to be made: whether to adopt a conservative financial approach and scale back activities; or to draw on reserves,  make use of the crisis, and expand to meet the needs being created by the pandemic.

There were also judgment calls to be made, particularly where COVID guidelines impacted the spirit, and the service delivery, of the not-for-profit’s mission.

The CEO: Very Important Before – Now Mission Critical

A crisis likes this calls for exceptional leadership from the CEO. All the Chairs recognised this, and all interviewed felt blessed to have excellent CEOs in place. Most of the Chairs interviewed said that they were spending more time on their role as Chair, and that being there to empower and support the CEO was the key driver. As one reflected, “Being a CEO is a lonely job, particularly at a time like this”. Given the speed of change and the challenges in leading an organisation with remote working, one of the biggest risks Chairs identified was that the CEO (and other key staff) would burn out.

Communication is Key

“You cannot communicate enough at a time like this,” said David Bunworth, Chair of Glasnevin Trust. It’s not just the communication between the Chair and the CEO mentioned before: communication between the Chair and board members was felt to be critical too. As Carol Ann Casey, outgoing Chair of CRC commented, “This was a very busy time and lots of decisions were being taken by the CEO. Ensuring that the board was kept updated on these decisions was I felt an important part of my role as Chair at this time. “

Some, but by no means all, of this communication with the board was in meetings – Irish Hospice Foundation instigated a fortnightly thirty-minute “emergency board update” to keep the Chairs of board sub-committees up to date on key indicators. In the cases of Glasnevin Trust and CRC several additional meetings with a single area of focus were held.

Several chairs expressed the desire, as soon as restrictions allow, to bring together directors, probably in small groups, for social get-togethers – to rebuild that personal connection which has been missing over this time.

Zoom Has Changed the Rules – Some of Them for the Better!

All Chairs observed that people were coming to board meetings better prepared than ever. In the past some boards had regularly presented or talked through papers sent in advance, so if the pre- reading hadn’t been done the Director could still contribute. That is no more! Pre-reading is now non-negotiable. In discussing routine issues or making straightforward decisions, board meetings were felt to have become more effective. Issues which required more considered discussion were more problematic, but in the absence of alternatives boards were getting on with it. All felt the loss of the asides, and of the “chats” that happened on the way into and out of the meetings.

The dreaded Zoom fatigue of course came up. Some boards had moved to shorter board meetings, others continued as before with meetings that were several hours long.

The Importance of Appreciation

“I think appreciation is a vital role for a not-for-profit board”, said Ita Mangan, Chair of Age and Opportunity. Most Chairs felt that this had never been truer and spoke of the importance of taking every opportunity to recognise and express gratitude for the work being done by the CEO and his/her team – many of whom are working remotely. Expressing appreciation to fellow directors - who are serving pro-bono, was also felt to be very important.

Most Chairs felt the loss of the casual opportunities that board members and Chairs have to interact with, get to know and say “well done” to team members: the opportunities presented when a Chair goes into offices for meetings, attends a leaving do, or has coffee and sandwiches after the AGM.

Kindness Matters

“Kindness is the key to workplace success in our post-Covid world” was one of the conclusions of a recent global business survey. The Chairs I talked with all endorsed this. All acknowledged that everyone, including themselves, had off-days at this time, and spoke about not knowing the financial, familial or health concerns that board members, the CEO and members of the team might have. One Chair spoke of “cutting people slack” and another said, “It’s important to accept that everyone is doing their best – in very challenging circumstances”.

Sub-committees – Even More Important and Working in a More Efficient Way

There was general agreement that the work of board sub-committees was even more important than before, particularly for those boards which had shortened their meetings. Dermot Breen, outgoing Chair of the Irish Cancer Society, commented, “Not having to travel offers considerable advantages, I see no reason why a lot of our committee meetings won’t continue on Zoom after we are able to meet up”.

The Challenges of On-Boarding New Members Remotely

Many of the Chairs interviewed had on-boarded new board members during the pandemic and agreed that the lack of personal connection had made it trickier – particularly for the new director. More one-on-one Zoom or phone calls between the Chair and the new Director have helped in some cases. Irish Hospice Foundation has put in place a board buddy system (arising out of feedback in a board evaluation pre-COVID) where an experienced board member is asked to be “a buddy” to the new board member.

Chairs Need Support Too

I was very taken by the enthusiasm with which the Chairs, most of whom I didn’t know well, responded to my invitation to chat and share their experiences. It was clear that I wasn’t the only person who benefitted from having a peer to talk and explore ideas with. This is where forums like coffee or drinks after IoD events are sadly missed but I would encourage members to pick up the phone or organise Zoom coffees to keep in touch with each other.