Ten things not-for-profit directors should do during the COVID-19 crisis

1. Stay safe

Okay, everyone’s telling you this, but that doesn’t mean it’s got any less important. Before going out to rub shoulders with your fellow citizens, examine your risk tolerance. If you’d draw the line at bungy-jumping, remember that it’s safer than being coughed on at the supermarket. (If you’re over 60, change “bungy-jumping” to “hang-gliding”. If you’re over 70, make that “trainsurfing”.) Let’s be careful out there!

2. Remember the mission

It’s hard, in the middle of a world crisis of historic proportions, to keep hold of the belief that the problems your group faces do in fact amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but it’s your job to do just that. Life has become more difficult, yes, and the fates are conspiring against you, but what you’re trying to do matters as much as it ever did. If it was worth doing before, it’s worth doing now – probably more so, in fact. Retain your enthusiasm. Share it around.

3. Meet

Keep up your usual schedule of meetings, or increase it. Don’t take the restrictions on numbers as an excuse to goof off the often thankless business of turning up for (online) meetings and receiving reports. The situation is changing rapidly, and you must be on top of any shifts in the risk profile.

Mentalhealth covid
Don't let the restrictions on numbers become an excuse for no meetings. Your organisation can stay connected by meeting online.

4. Zoom ahead

This involves, what with the safetying and all, a rapid order-of-magnitude upgrade of your technological savvy. New must-have apps pop up about twice a week, and in another week become as much part of everybody’s life as Quarantinis or sourdough starters. This is no time to flatten the learning curve.

There used to be just mail which you sent through the post, and then there was email, and then that became just mail and the old form became “snailmail”. There used to be just the telephone, with a dial, and then mobile phones came along, and then they became just phones and the old form became “landlines”. Meetings seem to be headed in the same direction. “Meeting” will mean “Zoom” (or whatever) and the old form will be known as “Heaven’s waiting room”.

5. Speculate

There are, as Lenin once said, decades where nothing happens, and then again there are weeks when decades pass. We’re in for fan-forced turbocharged vitamin-enriched change, and it’s almost impossible to see far into the future.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that however difficult prediction may be, it has to be done. Any guess is better than none. If you get it wrong, you’ve learned something, and if you haven’t, you’re ahead.

Because the foundations have shifted, too, new avenues have opened up. A lot of what you’ve been relying on is gone, but shocking new things are possible. This is a time for blue sky thinking, for bold visualisation, for asking “Why not?” rather than “Why?”

Ask for forward planning to be a standing item on your agenda. Launch your ideas into the arena. This is why we have boards. This is your moment.

6. Lobby

Your politicians are feeling as adrift as you are. You’ve been wanting change for a while, even if it’s only the kind of change that involves you getting adequate government funding, and this is a good moment to get your voice into their office while they’re off balance. Work out what you want to see in the world and get submissions in to your local MPs, the relevant ministers, the Premier and the PM, both from your organisation and from you as an individual.

Never waste a crisis. New policy windows have opened up, and they may not stay open long.

7. Know what’s in the tank

Australian not-for-profits are under horrific pressures, along with everybody else. Many of their fundraising strategies have been officially banned, longstanding partnerships have faltered, donors may be distracted by falling dividends, or by other causes. The government has had to give up on its budget surplus – but it can pull through this by printing its own money, and you can’t (though you may be able to get your hands on some of the government’s).

The treasurer has to be able to lay before you at any moment your organisation’s cash on hand and its outstanding liabilities (to debtors, to staff – including leave entitlements – and to the ATO). How close are you to cash-flow queries? You have to know.

8. Donate

If you’re going to get through this, you have to up your game when it comes to fundraising. And that begins by establishing your own credibility. You have to give, yourself. The amount will depend on your own financial circumstances, but it has to be enough to hurt a little bit – both because your organisation needs the money and because you can’t really ask anybody else to do something you’re not prepared to. You need to have skin in the game.

Australian not-for-profits often work on the basis that the responsibilities of board members are effectively discharged by the donation of their time. But as a board member you are one of the people who knows most about the organisation and is most committed to its success. How does it look if you don’t think it’s worthy of your cash? Give whatever you can – even if the dollar amount is small – and ask your friends to give too.

9. Fundraise

After that, look for prospects from your own extended family, their friends, and your work contacts – people who have enough money to be worth pursuing, and people who would value your opinions on where to direct donations. It’s like a pyramid selling scheme, but for good instead of evil. After all, you know why someone ought to give to the organisation, because (I repeat) you’ve done it yourself. It’s just a matter of spreading that consciousness around.

10. Face facts

It’s good to have a plan B. It’s vital to have a plan X. You need to assess how you’ll come out of lockdown. Or emerge from hibernation. Or defrost. Or regenerate.

You may be fine, and you may be able to step back into your old niche. That would be great. But there are no promises. There may be wrenching and painful decisions to be made. Your organisation may come out of it all smaller, or weaker, or wounded, or a little traumatised. Carry on. Keep your eye on the mission.

The mission is immortal. If you do run onto the rocks, see what can be salvaged to craft a new vessel on the beach. You’ve all built it up from scratch once, working together; you can do it again.


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