Keeping your association board connected

Fiduciary duty in difficult times

Right now, what’s being asked of association leaders – of all leaders – is unprecedented. The demands on an ED or CEO are always heavy, but now the sheer volume and gravity of decisions you’re having to make are staggering. There really is no map.

And in the midst of this, your board may be supportive and connected and wise. But I bet a lot of you are dealing with boards who are unhelpfully agitated and demanding, or otherwise taking a lot of management. Or your board members are disengaged – you send out something to them, and what you get back is just crickets.

Of course your board members likely have their own enormous professional or personal demands, and it is difficult for them to prioritize their volunteer responsibilities at a time like this. It’s understandable. However, they still are and will continue to be a key aspect of your organization’s response to this sustained and ongoing crisis.  

So how can you support your board at a time like this? What do you need from them? What do they need from you?

Reminder of their roles and responsibilities

First, remind them of what you’re trying to do, and their role. You may be trying to address member needs, keep the lights on, deal with decisions e.g. about upcoming events. Remind them of their fiduciary duty to this organization, even in difficult times. Everyone has a new role as an emergency manager, even if that’s just for a household. It’s normal if your board needs to be reminded of their pre-existing roles, especially for a volunteer position.

Keep things as simple as you can

Second, act as the filter. Really triage what the board sees right now. That’s to preserve the board’s time and energy and the staff’s as well. Keep things simple and to the point. Tell them that’s what you’re doing, too – more information is available if they want it, but now is not the time for long backgrounders.

Make the important stuff clear

Third, make sure the important stuff comes across clearly. That means providing context, and ensuring that the key points come through.

This is how we all finally understood what flattening the curve meant – we saw a graphic.

You don’t need to do a professional animation, but take a pen and paper and draw a chart or a diagram, and then  take advantage of SmartArt to make it real.

You’ll want to provide simple documents, heavy on the graphics. Less prose and more flow charts, decision trees, graphs, projections. Make sure people can really really see the main point.

Spell it out

Finally, do not assume your board recognizes the implications that you see. Is this an existential crisis, that is, you’re looking at potentially not being able to continue the association? Do you see that it will be impossible to undertake a certain activity at all  – for now, maybe forever? Don’t assume your board sees that. Do spell it out: clearly, simply, starkly.  

A board communication checklist

  • How you are monitoring the situation
  • What impacts you are expecting to see
  • What mitigations you are planning, to deal with the impacts
  • Timeframes and hurdles/criteria for significant decisions that may be required, e.g. cancellation of events (see decision tree outlined above)
  • What else you need from the Board, such as new policies, guidance on actions to take or avoid, etc.
  • What inputs or feedback you want from the Board and when/how
    • You may have fewer opportunities to get feedback from members if you are cancelling events; Board members can be proxies although remember they are a subpar member focus group and calibrate accordingly
  • What will not be happening or not progressing while you are dealing with the situation (and these decisions should be based on the intersection of the strategic plan, the business continuity plan, and the situation on the ground)

What does all this demand of you?

This means you will need your own strong analysis of the situation, even in these conditions of swamping ambiguity and uncertainty. It means you will have to be clear on what you are going to do, vs. what you are asking from your board. It demands a lot of self-management and compartmentalization on the part of a leader. You’ll need to take a deep breath and face some very tough situations head-on.

It is difficult, and if you do a bit of a messy job of it, please forgive yourself.

These are unprecedented times. We haven’t done this before. Not you, not me, not your board, not anyone.

If you would like to talk these issues over with an outside voice, even if we haven’t worked together before, I’m here. And if you are able to invest in more sustained leadership support right now, that’s a service I offer. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.