What Every Nonprofit CEO Needs to Do to Lead Their Organization Successfully Through the Coronavirus Pandemic

11 Top Suggestions for Nonprofit CEOs to Help Lead Their Organization Through Covid-19

By Dennis C. Miller
April 2020

Everyone in government, business, and nonprofit organizations is scrambling to cope with the highly uncertain and rapidly changing landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic. You are not alone. We are all in this together.

So, what can I do as a nonprofit CEO to clearly demonstrate effective leadership in today’s crisis to those we serve, our staff, board, volunteers and our donors? The following are my top suggestions:

  • Understand the anxiety that everyone feels. Don’t ignore it. Emphasize with all your internal and external stakeholders how you think people are feeling and make them feel safe to discuss their feelings openly. It’s time to discuss what you can control and what you can’t. People need to know you care about them. Begin every communication with empathy. “I know the current coronavirus pandemic has been extremely difficult for you, your family and our entire staff. We will get through this together.”
  • Be truthful and be honest. They are not the same. Being truthful means actively communicating all the true facts of the matter. Being honest means not telling lies. At the same time, be as optimistic as possible. However, most people will want to know how this pandemic will affect their job status and financial security. Be truthful, if you can’t guarantee anyone their job at this time, be honest and tell them.
  • Make the necessary workplace adjustments so those who can work remotely can do so while still feeling connected emotionally to their colleagues and the organization. There’s a big difference between work getting done and ensuring teams are working together effectively towards overall goals. This is a test for leaders to see if they can really manage remotely.
  • Listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and other medical and scientific experts and communicate to everyone about adhering to the social and physical distancing guidelines which have been designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. niaid.nih.gov
  • See the big picture even when you don’t have all the facts. Communicate with everyone what your organization’s new reality is. This is a time to take a fresh approach and, as a team discuss new ways to provide services to those you serve. If you haven’t done it before, this is absolutely the time to align everyone in the organization around the “new reality” with clearly defined individual goals that support your organization’s new goals.
  • This is clearly a time for you to discuss with your board new collaborative ways to survive during this unprecedented pandemic. Let your board members know you need their active participation to keep “the ship afloat” and moving forward. Perhaps this is an opportunity for your board to move beyond their normal fiduciary and strategic and advisory roles (“all in favor say I”) and become your true partner and have them demonstrate a real sense of ownership of your organization.
  • Believe it or not this may be an excellent time to focus on assessing your leadership talent and developing and implementing an organization wide leadership development program. This can create a sense of optimism and personal security that you are thinking about investing in them and their future. Engaging a leadership performance coach for your team can unlock their potential to maximize overall performance and the bottom line. By investing in leadership coaching for your team, you can build their skills, while ensuring your organization’s growth and a bright future path.
  • Stay close to your funders. Make sure you are communicating with them, so they know all you are doing to continue your mission while navigating through these difficult times. Instead of calling them “to ask for more money, call them and ask them how they are doing”. This can be a time where both individual donors along with corporate and business contributors feel more closely aligned with you and will want to ensure your organization not only survives but succeeds.
  • Take care of yourself. I know from personal experience the stress and strain of leading an organization through difficult times. But if you don’t take some time to “recharge your own batteries” you won’t be able to help anyone else. At some point each day, you need to know that you did all you can and it’s time to get some much-needed rest and sleep. Exercise will help you relieve the stress and provide you with the energy and determination to face the next day. “You can’t love your neighbor unless you love yourself first.”
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate. This is the time to connect with all your stakeholders, through personal video messaging, social media posts and email communications. Let everyone know that you are fully aware of the crisis due to the coronavirus and offer helpful resources and timely information and how they can best contact members of your team for assistance. Be very proactive too. Make sure your stakeholders don’t need to hunt for the information they need, lead them to it.
  • Become an inspirational leader. Leadership has been defined as the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. The most important characteristic of a leader is the decision to become one. At some point in time, you need to decide to provide others with a vision and direct the course of future events and inspire others to succeed. This is that time. I firmly believe that executive leaders can dramatically increase their team’s leadership potential by offering them opportunities for personal growth, build their self-esteem increase their self-awareness while seeking feedback from their colleagues and mentors.

By working together in partnership with your leadership team and board, your staff, donors and volunteers to safely cope with the coronavirus, you will soon be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and for once it won’t be a train.


Dennis C. Miller

Dennis C. Miller, the President of Dennis C. Miller Associates, Inc., is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach and executive search consultant with more than thirty-five years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Dennis is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and leadership performance coach. Dennis’ experience working with hundreds of nonprofit organizations has provided him with the knowledge and insights to understand the competencies required of today’s nonprofit leadership. www.denniscmiller.com

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