Top 10 Points for Board Leadership in Unprecedented Times

COVID-19 has ushered in unprecedented times, and unprecedented times call for unprecedented leadership. Yet no board has successfully led an organization through a global pandemic. To that end, our Compass experts share these best practices based on the current situation and knowledge gleaned from working with boards over the past 30 years. Our team envisions these points as beneficial not just for board members, but for executives and development staff working with boards in these times. 

Create a New or Adapted Plan for the Near Future

While you may know your organizational goals during times of “normalcy,” do you know what they are in the wake of COVID-19? Identify a new – or adapt existing – plans to help lead in these times. The current landscape is changing daily, if not hourly, so immediacy and efficiency in these plans is key. Unlike a long-term strategic plan, perfection is not the goal but rather a blueprint for effective operations in the near future that answers critical questions.

How can you help the organization to ask – and answer – the most important questions? What specific programs and outreach will be executed that are beneficial to society’s current needs? How will the organization adapt to virtual and additional modes of operations? What is the communication plan, both internally and externally?

Communicate Frequently

As a board member, take a proactive stance by seeking out and regularly disseminating news and updates about the organization amongst the leadership. It is critical to stay up-to-speed in such quickly changing times. By answering your phone, replying to emails, and supporting the organization’s communication channels, you are demonstrating your commitment and leading by involvement. 

Support External Communications

Mission-based organizations must engage, cultivate, and steward their audiences and donors now more than ever. Support these efforts by personally updating and connecting with donors through phone calls, virtual meetings, handwritten notes, and additional means of communication. Share your positive stories that lend themselves to strong and uplifting editorial for member magazines, digital newsletters, and other communication platforms that help promote the mission of your organization.

Think Creatively about Resources

Many organizations’ needs have changed in these unprecedented times. Resources, including partnerships, can aide immediately. Conceptualizing new ways to provide resources, forging creative partnerships, and drawing on your circle of influences can connect your organization with changing needs now.

Give First

Leaders, especially board members, are often asked to give the most but sometimes it’s about giving first. Making the first gift towards unrestricted or emergency funds not only immediately supports the organization which you care enough about to lead, but provides credibility to the greater audience. An initial gift in these times can leverage support at-large and philanthropic gifts – especially unrestricted – will carry organizations through this time.

Spot Check Your Relevancy

Are you relevant at this moment? Consider how your needs in these unprecedented times create an urgent and compelling case for support. Assess and update the verbiage in use for sensitivity to the moment. Focus on the short-term and actions taken immediately to benefit others while still connecting to your mission.

Review Your Investment Policy

Wise investment of your organization’s assets is a fundamental fiscal responsibility of the board. Investment policies are a necessary discipline in both good and challenging times. If your organization does not have an investment policy, create one that makes sense for the size and type of your organization. If you have a current investment policy, review it to be sure that it is still appropriate.

Remember that flexibility is key, as we have seen in the face of COVID-19. Emergency funds, unrestricted opportunities, and additional open-ended allocations allow an organization to be nimble in times that we have perhaps not yet even considered.

Engage Diverse Perspectives Across Your Board

Your board members are smart, and they are managing and leading other organizations also navigating this pandemic. They are also there to help and to be a full partner. This is the time to fully engage, listen, and learn from their diverse perspectives to make the best and most sound decisions for your organization.

Say “Thank You” Quickly

When donors make the quick decision to support your organization in this unprecedented time of need, we must match their speediness in our acknowledgement and follow-up. Engage by writing very timely thank you letters, making a phone call, sending a video, and additional means of virtually expressing the appreciation of not only the organization, but the board for the contributions received. Let donors know that their quick response was noticed and greatly appreciated and that their dollars are making a difference – especially at this critical time.

Remain Positive

This is hard! Yet we need to find a place to demonstrate positive leadership. Focus on how your organization can be positioned to be stronger, more resilient, and more relevant. Keep morale strong and keep doing your “good work” well.


About Frank Pisch

Frank Pisch is founder of The Compass Group, advancing the mission of hundreds of organizations through capital campaigns, major gift fundraising, strategic planning, and fundraising counsel. In his more than 40-year career, Frank has secured more than $4 billion in philanthropic gifts for diverse organizations including colleges and universities, independent schools, hospitals and medical centers, human service and environmental agencies, youth groups, arts organizations, and trade associations.

Frank is an Industry Advisory Council Member for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE); a Certified Board Consultant through BoardSource; and a frequent presenter at national conferences including CASE, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).

Frank holds a Master of Arts degree in Organization and Management from Antioch New England Graduate School and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Connecticut School of Education.


Top 10 Points for Successful Virtual Donor Meetings

Thanks to travel restrictions and social distancing mandates, we are in a state of virtual affairs. Many Compass clients see this as advantageous as organizational leaders and gift officers can connect with more donors, more readily. While the phone is a familiar tried-and-true mode of communication, virtual meetings present a more authentic and more engaging donor experience.

Compass shares these tips for successful virtual meetings with your donors:

Know your audience.

Before you move forward with a virtual meeting, pause to assess the donor. Even if you are attempting to replace an in-person meeting, or this one of your top prospects in your portfolio, a virtual meeting might not be ideal. This could prove true for a variety of reasons including lifestyle, accessibility, disabilities, and location. The first step is to assess if a virtual meeting is the best channel of communications. If not, strategize to identify a different way to successfully connect with the donor, and reserve the time and effort of a virtual meeting for those whom you deem a better fit. As most things in fundraising, there is no “one size fits all” and this rings true for virtual meetings.

Provide options.

Send an invitation for an hour-long meeting and include connection options. Not all of your donors will be savvy or comfortable with virtual meetings and the various formats. To help plan and avoid a series of emails that may delay a “yes” to a virtual meeting request, provide a finite amount of time and connection options up-front. Options vary depending on your own resources, but may include FaceTime if using a smartphone and Zoom or Skype if the donor has access to a laptop with a built-in camera or a desktop with a webcam. Understanding the donors’ resources and preferences from the onset will help to create a successful virtual meeting experience from start to finish.


Provide a confirmation communication with only the meeting time and connection instructions included. Once you and the donor have agreed on date, time, length (again, we recommend no more than an hour), and mode of virtual meeting, send an email (separate from the planning thread) or a calendar invite. This provides a simple resource for the donor to review as the meeting nears.

Be ready.

Prepare as thoroughly as you would for an in-person meeting. Just because you are not traveling to meet with a donor does not make this meeting any less important.

Draft speaking points that touch on the topics you want to cover. In our current climate, these most likely include an update on the organization and the long-term plans for sustainability. Know exactly what impression you want to leave and what information you want the donor to intake during your meeting and focus on achieving these.

Additionally, present your best self during the meeting. Even though you may be connecting across screens, dress and act as formally as you would for an in-person meeting. Depending on the dimensions and settings of your donor’s screen, you may also appear larger and closer than usual so pay attention to details that may prove distracting such as stray hairs and chewing gum. Silence your cell phone or place it on Do Not Disturb, as you would for an in-person meeting. Consider using an out of office message or closing out your email, to avoid distractions for both you and your donor. The buzz of a cell phone or the ding of an incoming email can be heard through the video call’s audio, so think about the best ways to create a quiet and comfortable environment for you and your guest.

Prepare a back-up plan.

Develop outlets for stalled communications. Virtual meetings might not be as seamless as in-person meetings and the conversation may go quiet in some moments without the rapport that face-to-face affords. To ensure a productive conversation and a positive experience for the donor, develop a list of questions that you can pose at any point. These should be both general enough to weave into whatever moment you find yourself in the conversation and tailored enough to feel specific to the donor with whom you are meeting.

Another option when using Zoom or Skype is to ready a limited number of visuals to share via the screen share mode. Two to three PowerPoint slides (not an entire deck) with engaging graphics or visuals often proves successful in moving through a stalled conversation while staying focused on the message and topics at-hand. You can share video or audio clips, key organizational documents or invite in a subject-matter expert to join the call to provide some additional content. Virtual meetings are a great way to bring multiple people from different areas together.

Consider your surroundings.

If you are in a location with background noise, use a headset to help eliminate the sounds of children playing in the other room or dogs barking. Select an appropriate background. If your own setting will be visible, ensure it is professional and uncluttered. You want the donor to remain focused on you and your message (not your child’s drawing on the wall or your magnet-covered refrigerator behind you).


Some virtual meeting applications provide background options, and a quick google search can provide a plethora of additional options, which should be chosen with the lens of professionalism, as well as authenticity to your mission. For example, a library option is a better fit for a cultural organization than a beach scene in the background. 

Complete a dry run.

Learn the basics for the virtual platform you plan to use. If you have yet to speak with a donor in a virtual setting, practice with a colleague or a friend. Schedule a time, ensure your connection works, talk through your introduction and prepared notes, and monitor your own comfort level with the technology and communication style. If things do not go as planned, practice once again to help ensure the actual donor meeting is a success.

Show up on time.

For your scheduled meeting, call-in right-on time (if using FaceTime) or early (if using ZOOM or another app with links). Just as you wouldn’t want your donor sitting and waiting for you in-person, don’t keep the donor waiting virtually. A “waiting for the host to launch” message is not a welcoming approach for your donor.

Be flexible.

Just as you may for a telephone call or an in-person meeting, set flexible expectations at the beginning of the virtual meeting. “This might not take the whole hour” or “I’m flexible as to our length” provides both you and the donor an option to not fill the entire booked time slot or, alternatively, to continue longer than planned if the conversation is natural and flowing during the virtual meeting.


Follow-up for a virtual meeting may seem unnecessary, but just as with an in-person meeting, a donor has given time to you and your organization by way of this meeting. Send a handwritten follow-up note (or email, if you think more appropriate) thanking the donor for sharing this time with you.


About Beth Heikkila

Beth Heikkila joined The Compass Group in 2019 as chief operating officer and a strategic member of the leadership team. Prior to this position, Beth gained unparalleled operations and fundraising expertise through her roles with The Nature Conservancy, The Salvation Army, and March of Dimes. She brings this experience from complex, national nonprofit organizations to The Compass Group, enhancing the firm’s operations through her dedication to best practices and effective problem solving. In her role of chief operating officer, Beth oversees the infrastructure to advance corporate sustainability, maximizes business development, and ensures the highest quality of service for Compass’s growing client base.

Beth has successfully worked in a virtual environment for more than ten years for both Compass and The Nature Conservancy.

Recommendations for Philanthropy in the COVID-19-Affected Economy

The coronavirus (COVID-19) and its widespread impact continues to be the subject of intense interest, extending into the economic and philanthropic markets. We have diligently tracked the economy and philanthropy for the past 50 years and witnessed the steady increase in philanthropy in every year barring few exceptions.

This economic situation differs from those of previous economic downturns in that it is driven by health concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Yet the end results are similar. We are faced with unique marketplace realities that have resulted in a loss of money and a loss of confidence in the ability of international production of marketable goods – and the cascade that follows. A level of discomfort permeates among organizations’ key constituents including staff, volunteers, board members, donors, and prospects.

The playing field, however, is the same as it was before. Every organization in the nonprofit arena is met with an equivalent landscape and there will be some economic Darwinism at work. Those that compete the best and with the most assertiveness will find the most success.

Compass’ recommendations for times such as this include:

Refining and Reiterating the Case for Giving

  • Do not ignore the economy and the pandemic conversations. This year, donors will understand organizational challenges. Include in your narrative that you are taking measures to ensure their dollars are spent wisely.
  • Be worthy, not needy. Demonstrate that while being prudent in preparation for a year that is very uncertain, you are staying the course because of the importance of your mission.
  • Do not panic. Every other nonprofit organization is navigating the same issues. Crisis fundraising is rarely successful.
  • Appeal to emotion. Even in tough economic times, gifts are generated from the “heart” and justified by the “head”. There is a societal need for what you do and a result that benefits the entire community. Your mission is worthy and has value so do not be shy. Being fiscally responsible strengthens that message.

Focusing on Annual Fund Appeals

  • The Annual Fund is not about big plans for expansion or acquisition, it is about today. Keep focused on the basic mission and operation of your organization and how your donors can help.
  • Focus on executing the basics well. Your environment is much more competitive, so focus on doing the right things and doing them as professionally as possible.
  • Stay within your philanthropic culture. Do not be too fancy or too austere–just be you.
  • Continue with your regular cadence of annual fund appeals. Your donors are used to it and will expect it, no matter the economic climate.
  • Put your immediate needs out front right now. Adhere to your institutional integrity and understand that the economy might have an impact.
  • Plan for slower returns and, possibly smaller gifts. Many are predicting that annual funds may not take a big hit because they are based on discretionary income and not appreciated assets.
  • Ask. Action in the marketplace is infinitely better than inaction in times like these.
  • Engage some of your loyal major donors to create a challenge to inspire others to give.
  • Stress participation – keep your donors close and involved as much as possible while respecting travel regulations and social distancing mandates.

Continuing Capital Campaign Planning

  • While the economy and current climate has a huge impact on the psychological state of your donors, your organization still has needs and plans. You must continue with your planning–and with the implementation of those plans. Stagnation is damaging and difficult to overcome.
  • Spend time reviewing your prospect pool. Identify potential prospects, conduct prospect research, and identify influential relationships to ensure your pipeline is sufficient for future success.
  • Cultivate your prospect pool and current donors. This is an ideal time to keep them close, get them involved, and let them know how important they are to you.
  • Refine your message and build an urgent and compelling case for support. Spend time instilling confidence in your volunteers and ensuring they are speaking with the same voice.
  • Train your solicitation teams. Use this time to prepare your volunteers for handling major gift asks in this environment.
  • Be prudent, be cautious, and continue to move forward.
  • Continue to cultivate and involve your best supporters. Some organizations will forego talking to their best donors in tough times–and this may be especially tempting given the current interaction limitations – do not make that mistake.

Soliciting for A Capital Campaign

  • Acknowledge that your campaign may take longer, gifts may be smaller, in-person visits will be fewer, and fundraising may be harder.
  • Assess your campaign timeline. You may need to adjust plans and timelines to account for solicitations that may take longer and volunteers more reluctant to solicit in times of discomfort.
  • Strive to increase your prospect pool and re-validate your ask amounts.
  • Train your solicitation teams to be more empathetic and flexible with their prospects and to continue to connect with prospects despite travel restrictions limiting in-person visits.
  • Create opportunities to build stronger relationships with your prospects through phone and video calls, personalized notes, and additional means of connection during a time of mandated social distancing.
  • Continue to ask.
  • Utilize “Letters of Intent” for those prospects who feel uncomfortable about pledging over a 5-year pledge period.
  • In a difficult solicitation, consider receiving 20 percent of your proposed ask amount now–this year–and asking to come back next year for a four-year pledge.
  • Maintain your team. Your main job during times like this is to keep people working. It may not be along the original plan (everyone may need new campaign plans, timetables, and visitation metrics) but they need to know that there is a strategy in place.
  • Be patient, be persistent, and be respectful to your prospects and donors.

Strengthening Stewardship

  • Remember that those donors with whom strong, confident relationships exist will continue to support you even in difficult times.
  • Invest in those donors who understand and see their value to you as they will continue to give. Those donors who have experienced your productivity and understand your “value add” will not only stay with you, but will also set a leadership example for others to follow.


About The Compass Group

The Compass Group headquartered in Alexandria, VA, provides strategy, education, and coaching to organizations that must be successful in fundraising. In a working partnership with your staff, volunteers, and board, Compass will help you to enhance and develop the philanthropic culture of your nonprofit organization and achieve fundraising success. Our specialty areas include Arts & Culture, Environmental, Health Care, Higher Education, Human Services, and Independent Schools.

About Frank Pisch

Frank Pisch is founder of The Compass Group, advancing the mission of hundreds of organizations through capital campaigns, major gift fundraising, strategic planning, and fundraising counsel. In his more than 40-year career, Frank has secured more than $4 billion in philanthropic gifts for diverse organizations including colleges and universities, independent schools, hospitals and medical centers, human service and environmental agencies, youth groups, arts organizations, and trade associations.

Frank is an Industry Advisory Council Member for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE); a Certified Board Consultant through BoardSource; and a frequent presenter at national conferences including CASE, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).

Frank holds a Master of Arts degree in Organization and Management from Antioch New England Graduate School and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Connecticut School of Education.