By Carl Helstrom, Chairman of the Board at State Policy Network
State think tank leaders around the country are demonstrating great fortitude and creativity adapting to the COVID-19 situation—supporting their teams and finding innovative ways to continue their important work. I am proud that the State Policy Network team is rallying around these leaders, working to ensure they have resources and tools to address the crucial challenges they face.
The Board of Directors ought to be a valuable asset during periods of unusual uncertainty, and the Chairman of the Board in particular can help to ensure that an organization weathers the storm, and, ideally, flourishes in the long run.
As Chairman of SPN, active in the state policy community during the past three decades—through good times and bad—I would like to offer some ways state think tank chairmen can help during these challenging times:
1. Check in on your CEO. Executive leadership can be a lonely experience in the best of times. In moments of profound disruption, a sense of isolation can quickly seem overwhelming to the most resilient leader.
Your CEO may be feeling like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Like the rest of us, they are no doubt worrying about the health of the organization, about their staff and their staff’s families, as well as their own families. This may be the first time some CEOs fully realize how the fortunes of others are dependent on them and the decisions they make. It can be an enormous weight to bear, and there may be no one else to share the burden with them. As chairman of the organization, you can provide authority and lend support in crucial executive and financial situations.
2. Help your CEO to stay focused on the organization’s core mission. It’s easy in times of major disruption to panic or to be tempted by new ideas and projects. While it may be necessary to realign priorities to meet new realities, your organization’s mission should continue to be the guiding light that informs those decisions, and a key part of your job is to clearly and consistently articulate the importance of mission in trying times. Don’t be afraid to ask fundamental questions. Bottom line: When the perceived crisis is over, will the organization be stronger because of the actions you take? Such questions can help sharpen organizational thinking about priorities.
3. Actively support the organization’s fundraising and management efforts. One of the most important responsibilities of a nonprofit Board of Directors is to help the organization acquire and shepherd the resources necessary to fulfill its mission. That role is even more important in trying times.
4. Discourage micromanagement. Protect the CEO and staff from meddling. In times like this, it’s natural for board members (and, sometimes, major donors) to want to jump in and help. Board members with genuine concern about the organization may preoccupy the CEO and other staff with well-meaning questions, ideas, and suggestions. It’s all meant in good faith and comes from a desire to help. But the last thing you want your CEO and staff to do right now is babysit the board.
5. Be prepared to use your influence as chairman to help other board members. Remind the board that their job is not to get into the weeds of running the organization. But, be mindful there may be board members with experience that may be relevant and useful to the CEO or senior leadership team.
6. Work with the CEO to develop a concise and reasonable communication plan to keep the board informed.
Your CEO was hired because you and your fellow board members believed he had the experience, skill, and wisdom to lead your organization through times like this. Trust him. Support him. And be there to help constructively when he asks.
If you need support or have questions about your role, I encourage you to reach out to fellow board chairmen in the state policy community. There is a wealth of experience amongst them. Take advantage of that. You can also reach out to the SPN team. They are here to help.
The role of independent state think tanks that promote freedom, federalism, and free markets has never been more important than it is today. I am confident they will continue to drive policy innovation and reform in the aftermath of this medical crisis. Your support, guidance, and encouragement will help your organization play that role in your state.