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How to Regain Staff and Board Support Still Reeling from the Effects of COVID-19

board relations for executive directors relationship building Jan 05, 2021

Morale has waned as staff and board struggle to cope. Staff may feel insecure in their jobs, Board members may fear organizational nonexistence. Trust has eroded amidst layoff’s and downsizing. Staff are angry. Board members feel helpless. Emotions are high. Productivity is down. Customer service has eroded. And with them the revenues you are realizing. 2020 was quite a year. You need 2021 to be better. And you need the support and trust of your whole agency to do it. Just how can you regain the trust you need?

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Today we’re going to talk about building internal support. To learn all six essential steps to recovering after a decline, read this article and take my free-online training From Poor to Prosperous: How to Grow Your Nonprofit in Six Essential Steps at

Regaining Support and Trust from the Front Lines

Workers on the front lines are the most disconnected from leadership. They are the ones farthest away form the center of or down from the top of the organizational chart. They bear the brunt of the work with clients. They see how the increasing lack of resources is affecting service delivery and the impact that has on the people they serve. Interacting directly with clients, they get the brunt of client complaints. They also see the growing need they can’t meet in the community. In addition, the front lines may have watched as others were laid off and wondering when it’s their turn. They are probably extremely stressed. And they may show it.

Front line workers need face time with you. Unless you are out there and they see you care, they may begin to form negative feelings toward you, like “leadership doesn’t understand,” “leadership doesn’t care,” and “ leadership takes care of itself before if takes care of us.” If you’re not careful, you get an “us” versus “them” attitude which can lead to a very dangerous dynamic.

To combat negative thoughts, show that you are one of the team. Manage by walking around. Ask your front lines questions about their personal lives and how they’re holding up. Acknowledge their feelings. Let them know you understand and care. If you are a large organization and can’t get to everyone, go to the key influencers. Word will get around.

You also need to let them know you are still in control, despite the chaos they see. You need to communicate, “Times are hard right now. And we will make it through together. You’re still the best of the best. It’s why we hired you. Here are our plans for weathering this storm together.” And then do what you say. Show that you are a keeper of your word, that you can be trusted.

As frontline workers feel more secure, morale goes up and the workplace atmosphere improves. Which means customer service improves. The overall tenor of the front lines becomes more positive and the result is reflected in the higher satisfaction of the people you serve. You have begun an upward trend.

Regaining Support and Trust from Management

The hardest part of management is not getting the job done, it’s dealing with people. Managers are not only dealing with their own fears, they are also dealing with emotions and dissatisfaction of the front lines, all the while showing support for leadership’s decisions. Managers are trying to keep morale up, both among themselves and the front lines. You need them to rally the frontline workers and support your decisions, even if that means layoffs.  Managers certainly have a lot of emotion to deal with – both among their ranks and their subordinates. Your managers probably have a need to vent and blow off steam, emotions are so high. And with COVID-19 lasting so long, they may be weary and worn down.

Managers do best when the emotional complexity of their situation is realized and adequate supports are in place to help them deal with it. You certainly want to manage them by walking around, in the same way you do with your frontline workers. An open door policy also helps.

Let your managers know what to expect, both in terms of agency plan and people’s reactions. Help your managers problem solve the difficult situations they face. Their judgement may be clouded. They are worn down and under a lot of stress. Listen to them. Acknowledge what they say so they feel heard. And remember acknowledgement does not mean agreement. It means feeling heard, and thus supported.  

Managers may also have a need to understand the decisions you are making so they can back you up. One way to do this is to have them participate in the decision-making. For example, give managers a say in who stays and who goes. They know who the outstanding versus run-of-the-mill workers are. They also know who the influential workers are. Tap into that knowledge.

Managers must also care for themselves. They may need to be taught self-care. Provide them with ways they can rejuvenate, like time off or flexible scheduling. And lead by example. Show your managers that it is okay to engage in self-care activities. Nothing speaks louder to them than your actions.

Regaining Support and Trust from the Board

No one has been through COVID-19 before. As such, your board members are probably at a loss and don’t know what to do. They may feel helpless, unable to stop what’s happening. They may also feel hopeless as things drag on and no one know when the pandemic will end. As a result, they may have become controlling in order to force a positive outcome. Or they may have disengaged and become hands off, leaving things up to a strong few. They may direct their negative feelings on the executive director and become angry or critical. They may be in conflict with you. Or they may be in conflict with one another. Or both. Emotions are high as survival is at stake.

Whatever you do, you cannot react to their negative feelings. Conflict is normal during times of stress. Your board may need to taught this. You need to set expectations. Let them know what’s normal and typical when organizations are under stress. Let them know both emotionally and operationally. Operationally, tapping into reserves, selling assets, lay-offs – this stuff is normal in an extreme, prolonged crisis. All of you want to change those trends. But you have to experience the down part first before you can change it to the upward part. COVID-19 was unexpected. Your nonprofit is not failing just because it took the initial hit. It is going to, though, if you don’t reverse the trend.

So, focus on survival. Whatever you feel, project confidence. You have a good team in place. You’ve been through rough times before. You will also get through this one. Emotions will be high – expect decision-making to be more emotional the logical. You must provide the facts and the logic.  Be ready to show the board financial plans and numbers. Have several scenarios, including worst-case. You want to involve your finance committee in helping with the projections. You want them to be able to see survival, whatever it looks like. And you want them to communicate their belief of survival to other board members.

As a board, get to problem solving. Let them be your partners in keeping morale up and staff feeling appreciated. For example, board members can make calls to staff voicing appreciation for their efforts and loyalty during this pandemic. You can also do the same thing with your donors. Take this time to let your donors know how much you appreciate them and their continues support despite difficult economic circumstances. Have your board be the leaders in creating a positive atmosphere and starting that upward emotional trend.   

Your board also needs guidance on what you need from them. Don’t try to tough it out and go it alone. Tell them what they can do to help you be your best during all this stress. And give them ways to manage their own stress. Don’t let the conflict and strong emotions tear you apart. Face the enemy – COVID – together.

Regaining Trust in Yourself

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself. You may begin to doubt yourself and your capabilities. Find your cheerleaders, preferably outside your nonprofit, like a coach or mentor. Engage in self-care. Take care that you remain in a positive state so that you can move your nonprofit forward. You are important. Send yourself positive messages. Do what you have to do to thrive.

Wrapping It Up

Spend some face time with your staff. Take a personal interest in them. Tell them what to expect. Acknowledge the complex emotional situation your managers face. Support them Have an open door policy, Listen to them. Help them problem solve. Give them input into the decision-making. Show them through your actions how to take care of themselves. Expect conflict with your board. Let the board know what to expect, both emotionally and operationally. Give them tools for handling it. Don’t react to negative feelings. Plan for several financial scenarios. Let your finance committee help you. Let them communicate confidence in survival. Tell your board what you need from them to succeed.  Model how to engage in self-care. Surround yourself with your cheerleaders. Know that you and your team will face whatever happens together. And, over time, you will not only rebuild trust, you will survive, and thrive.

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