From the pen of Beth Burns: Board Engagement in the time of COVID

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I feel like Goldilocks every time I check in with my governance committee – Is it too much? Too little? Just right?

These questions are in reference to my communication with The Friends’ Board who, like all of us, are learning to balance the simultaneous responsibilities of work, family, education, and public health in new ways while also remaining responsible for the wellbeing of our nonprofit organization.

Finding the right balance of engagement with trustees has been among my highest priorities as The Friends’ executive since we retreated to our home offices and saw our work upended in every conceivable way. Prioritizing board engagement during this pandemic is essential for a number of reasons:

  • Trustees are literally and legally responsible for the fiscal health and mission fulfillment of a nonprofit organization; they cannot fulfill this responsibility without timely, accurate information that reflects our changing environment. If your organization is like mine, the budget and the work we do looks drastically different today than it did 8 weeks ago.
  • Trustees are our best ambassadors. Their fluency, confidence, and enthusiasm for our work is a powerful tool in maintaining the visibility, relevance, and urgency needed to raise the funds and produce the programs that are central to our mission.
  • Trustees amplify our ability to get things done. I have yet to meet an overstaffed library support organization that has too many resources, too much expertise, or too much time to do the work.
  • Trustees – like everyone else – deserve the opportunity to experience joy, witness resilience, and cultivate hope during these uncertain times.
  • Trustees – also like everyone else – want to help. There is so much we cannot control right now. It feels good, and even necessary, to feel that we make a difference in some small way.

So, what is “just right”?

I have strived to find the right balance of frequency, content, and depth of information that I am sharing with my board. Since early March, my communication has loosely fallen into two categories: operational updates and mission stories.

In my operational updates, which are sent out weekly, I am providing summaries of:

  • Revised cash flow projections and budget forecasting along with significant updates to our daily operations
  • Changes to major public programs (in our case, this included moving the MN Book Awards ceremony from an in-person event for 900 people to an online, virtual event that ended up reaching 4,100 people).
  • Specific requests for their action to use their personal social media channels and networks to promote our programs or fundraising efforts.

I am not providing them with changes and cancellations to dozens of smaller programs and services that serve a more niche audience. I am not forwarding ‘interesting’ articles about libraries, the nonprofit sector, or general COVID-19 updates. I am not engaging them about changes to our check writing or mail delivery protocols. These are busy folks. They don’t have the bandwidth, the interest, or the need to stay engaged at that level.

Equally important to the operational updates are the mission moments and stories. Examples of these communications I’ve sent in the last month include:

  • A bundle of links to positive media coverage about our revised and new programming.
  • Quotes and notes from library patrons, donors, and friends who have taken the time to affirm our work through a letter or note.
  • Statistics and public comments related to the Library’s nimble response and radical reinvention of its own work: more than 10,000 children and their adults participated in the Library’s virtual Storytime Live last week!  Since March 15, weekly registration for library e-cards has increased 800% over a typical week!

For all our communications – board level and beyond – we are prioritizing a message that Libraries are essential. That we have to do our work well so that the library can do what it does best: respond to community needs through innovation. Doing so means that our community can find critical resources to virtually learn, work, and connect to others.

Every organization is striving to find its own “just right” when it comes to board engagement during these strange times. I implore all of us in leadership roles to prioritize this critical board engagement work so that we can keep our community strong, both during this crisis and long after it’s behind us.

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