Boards find themselves facing a host of challenges as they work to fulfill their fiduciary roles in the pandemic. But the challenges of the pandemic may provide opportunities to evolve governance in ways beneficial for the long run. We seek to offer some guidance that isn’t simply pandemic specific but might also serve boards and their institutions once through the crisis.

The pandemic is forcing board members to approach their work differently. Central to doing things differently is thinking about them differently. Complex environments mean that cause and effect is unknown and there rarely are right answers. Some board members are nostalgic and stuck in old routines; some seek overly simplistic answers to complex questions; and some resist the demands of governing in this complex environment. Boards must be able to open up discussions, generate ideas, and allow the staff team to lean into emergent practices (rather than rely on best practices of the past). Decisions need to be made, but sensemaking is needed first.

Some suggestions:

  • Instead of encouraging the board to plunge into operational solutions to issues the organization is facing now, open a dialogue that encompasses the core values the institution wants to preserve. What does your organization value? These values may be programmatic excellence, equity, community, or collaboration.
  • Reconsider the criteria by which the board can decide an issue. How do you evaluate risk against speed, or ease of implementation versus cost, or ROI?
  • What trade-offs do your decisions demand? Consider tradition, history versus change, financial health against community health, shared governance versus decision speed, and the longevity of impact.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s about the need to focus on top priorities. This should be a wake-up call for boards to be more intentional about the focus of their work. Set goals for each meeting with specific outcomes and keep the agenda tightly tied to those goals. Being intentional about what the board needs to address and why is essential right now. The board should not limit its focus only to the problems at hand.

Read the full article about governance during a pandemic by Cathy A. Trower and Peter D. Eckel at BoardSource.