Responding to COVID-19: Chief Executive Support

Organizations face complex decisions in order to continue to operate despite interruptions. The chief executive is responsible for navigating these challenges.

Nonprofit CEOs and Executive Directors are the most critical employee a nonprofit has, even in the best of times. They are a crucial link that ties the board and staff together. Right or wrong, they are often the face of the organization and the place where credit and blame for an organization’s success or failures rests. With competing responsibilities, priorities and audiences, this position can often feel isolated and lonely. As we face this pandemic, the urgency to do well in this position is only amplified.

We have created this page as a repository for resources that we hope can help CEOs and Executive Directors lead, with mission and purpose in mind, during these difficult times.


Questions from the BoardSource Network

Asking for help

Q: I’m an executive director and I’m really struggling. I know everyone is trying to weather the storm, but I’m finding it difficult to get assistance/feedback from my board and board members. How can I be supportive of them as volunteers, and give them the time they need, while also moving forward with supporting my organization and the community it serves?

A: Thank you for reaching out to BoardSource. I hear you – this is hard. These are very difficult and uncertain times for all, and remember, you are not in this alone. The first thing you want to do is get your board chair (or another prominent board member) engaged. You need a partner on the board that can help communicate the needs of the organization. Someone to remind board members that they have a specific fiduciary duty — the duty of care — to support the organization, especially in times of crisis.

Another thing that might be helpful is to, in partnership with the chair, make very specific, actionable asks of the board when you see that there is someone who can help with something and/or when you need a specific action from the board as a whole. When people are stretched, specificity and action-ability really matter. For more information, which out our blog post on the board’s role in times of crisis.

Micromanaging board

Q. During this COVID-19 crisis my very engaged community foundation board members are emailing and FaceTiming me (I’m the CEO) constantly with resources they’ve read, potential grantees we should be funding, requests for updates on our financial projections, etc. How can I keep my board engaged and still have time to do my job?

A: I can imagine you are getting pulled in many directions right now. As the CEO of a community foundation, you are the frontlines of making sure nonprofits are funded to do the critical work your community needs. It’s great that your board members are excited and want to help the organization, but it sounds like even with the best of intentions, they are adding to the stress and could be veering into micromanagement — something that can accidentally happen in times like this. Right now though, we need boards to be a calm, supportive body for the CEO. During this crisis, we may also need them to hang up their board hat and help out as volunteers for the organization. When we need board members to engage as volunteers, we need to be very clear that this is the role they are playing and that it is a time-limited task.

Our board chair, Cathy Trower, and our president and CEO, Anne Wallestad just shared their perspectives on how boards can be most supportive of their CEOs at this time of crisis in a Facebook Live interview. Cathy made the point (11:30 mark) that now is the time for board chairs to use their leadership role to keep the rest of the board informed and steer them away from interrogating or micromanaging the CEO. Board chairs can do this by asking the CEO what specific tasks that board members could do to be the most helpful. The board chair can then communicate this to the full board.

So I would encourage you to reach out to your board chair and share with them what you need from the board. If you don’t currently have this kind of open dialogue, now is the time to build that type of relationship and discuss how you want to communicate with the board chair and the rest of the board. It’s also a great opportunity for both of you to find out how you are each doing personally and share how the staff is experiencing this crisis. It can be very lonely for chief executives at the best of times, but it is probably even more so now when there are so many unknowns and tough decisions to be made about how to keep our nonprofits and communities safe. A strong, supportive partnership between the board and the CEO is essential right now.  I’ve also included some resources for foundations below:

Council on Foundations:

Council of Michigan Foundations: (includes Q&As related to how community foundations are helping their grantees during the COVID-19 crisis)

National Center for Family Philanthropy:

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations:

Joy Folkedal


Q: I am the executive director of a local foodbank. Over the last few months, the board and I have been discussing how to partner with other nonprofits in our community to help people with food insecurity. With the COVID-19 virus, we want to move even faster. How do I start to find potential partners?

A: I’m so glad to hear you and your board are on the same page about the need to work with other nonprofits to help those in your community most impacted by COVID-19. We are all being called to collaborate with each other to address this crisis. Nonprofits also need to be agile and flexible and move at a faster pace than ever before.

To start finding potential partners, do a scan of your community. What other nonprofits, government agencies, and corporate foundations are currently meeting food insecurity needs? Are any organizations meeting related needs like housing, unemployment, or childcare?

Other strategies for identifying partners during the COVID-19 pandemic might include:

  • reaching out to organizations in your community with whom you already have relationships
  • asking your funders who they think might make good partners in the community
  • tracking your local and state media to find out which nonprofits, government agencies, and corporations have stepped up to deliver services in your neighborhoods
  • reaching out to local and state nonprofit associations or resource centers to find out if they are building coalitions that you might join. Many are hosting networking calls.
  • posting on social media about your search for potential partners to start discussing how you might collaborate
  • hosting a virtual town hall or Facebook live event and inviting the community – you never know if a critical player might attend

Another great resource for finding potential partners are your board members. When working with the CEO, board members can play a valuable role in helping to identify and connect with potential strategic partners, in addition to helping think through a broader strategy.

Before reaching out to your potential partners, you and your board might consider the following questions identified in The Power of Possibility discussion guide, which includes some great resources on strategic alliances:

  • What programs and functions are absolutely core to our purpose? What functions are necessary but not core to our purpose that could be stopped, put on hold, or outsourced to another organization during the COVID-19 crisis?
  • Are there ways that we could outsource to or share certain functions with another organization that would be more effective in meeting our stakeholders’ needs? What are the potential benefits and risks of doing so?

Once you and your board have identified potential partners, you can initiate a conversation with the partners about your joint goals and explore whether you might:

  • add or combine programs
  • expand your scope, either through geographic or group-served expansion
  • find efficiencies and ways to decrease overlap between organizations without an infusion of resources

Joy Folkedal