Board Smarts: Launching a Rapid Response

How to reconvene a board after an emergency—a situation which NELLCO recently faced.

The two-day board meeting of the New England Law Library Consortium had a tough start. The first day’s meeting took place in Boston on April 18, just three days after the marathon bombing; one NELLCO board member was too upset by the news to attend. But Executive Director Tracy L. Thompson says it was a productive session. She left materials ready for day two, when she planned to adjourn on an up note, presenting a set of personalized mugs for each board member.

Her plans were upended overnight. A manhunt for the bombers put the city on lockdown, blocking access to the law library at Northeastern University where the meeting was held. “My first thought was, ‘How am I going to get everybody together? Where are we going to relocate to?’” Thompson says. “But I quickly realized that wasn’t going to be possible.”

It’s going to stand out in everybody’s mind as a shining moment.

Via phone, email, and Facebook, Thompson was able to account for the board members. But the moment called for more personal than strategic leadership—two board members from New York City were particularly upset, and the new goal was to get everybody home safely. “Part of [my responsibility] was recognizing where everybody was emotionally,” she says.

But there was still a board meeting that needed to be held. Within a week, Thompson was proposing times to reconvene, taking a two-pronged approach. First was a WebEx conference to address straightforward procedural matters. Second was a half-day meeting in New Haven, Connecticut, to cover the strategic planning exercises Thompson had originally arranged. Another follow-up meeting was scheduled in Seattle in conjunction with a conference, but the board wrapped up the bulk of its work less than three weeks after the original meeting was canceled.

The experience taught Thompson that virtual meetings won’t quite cut it, at least not exclusively. “There’s so much more that has to get done in a face-to-face way,” she says. Thompson also now sees the virtues of another old-school technology: She plans to have printed lists of volunteer contact info handy so that others can help make phone calls in case of another sudden change in plans.

Thompson credits the board’s poise in getting their meeting back on track. “It’s going to stand out in everybody’s mind as a shining moment,” she says. “Nobody said, ‘You really expect us to come together again?’ They came together to do the work of their organization without complaining about the difficulties.”

And though it took her a couple of weeks, Thompson eventually returned to the Northeastern University campus to gather up the materials the board left behind. Everybody received their mugs.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!