Board Level Support During Uncertain Times

The U.S. Army War College curriculum in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s included the idea of a more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world following the end of the cold war. The curriculum meant to develop strategic leadership in unprecedented times. The acronym VUCA did not stick until the late 1990s and it was used much more after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As the world, and North Texas, have come under attack by the novel coronavirus, strategic leadership is sought by business and social service sectors alike.

As a member of the Executive Committee for the Board of Directors for the North Texas Food Bank, I have had the privilege of watching the leadership of the NTFB respond to the VUCA environment forced upon them with thoughtful strategy, incredible agility, and grit. As Trisha Cunningham, NTFB President and CEO, said in her recent op-ed for The Dallas Morning News: “The real strength of food banking is in its nimbleness: responding to individual community needs, addressing gaps in our safety net and innovating over time.”

Adam Saphier is a member of the Executive Committee of the North Texas Food Bank
Board of Directors.

At its simplest, the concept of VUCA can be broken down like this:

  • Volatility: How quickly is the environment changing and what dynamics are influencing the change?
  • Uncertainty: To what degree can we predict the future? What do we know and what remains unknown?
  • Complexity: What is the scope of factors and issues that need to be considered?
  • Ambiguity: When we do receive information, what is our ability to interpret it accurately or utilize it moving it forward?

The North Texas Food Bank has been responding to the community while the elements of the VUCA environment caused by the COVID-19 crisis make its work increasingly challenging. The current pandemic environment is extremely volatile, with demand spiking at accelerated rates not seen before. NTFB distributed more than 9 million pounds of food over the past 4 weeks – which is more than double its pre-COVID distribution rate. Rapid change and revaluation of priorities is happening almost daily. When the crisis hit, the Food Bank wasted no time adapting its volunteer and meal distribution models to ensure safety, efficiency and accessibility of its services to its partner agencies and our community members in need.

The situation is intricate and complex, as many factors are at play with each other – health and safety protocols, local and state governance, and federal guidelines, to name a few. In response to the complexity, the NTFB’s technology investments have allowed high-risk employees to work from home and essential frontline team members to physically distance. The increased size of the Perot Family Campus along with donated space at a temporary warehouse have enabled Texas National Guard volunteers to pack up to 60,000 boxes of food weekly. The NTFB has fought through the ambiguity to develop efficient systems, like the network of mobile pantries that has served more than 13,000 families in just the past few weeks with as many as 70% of these neighbors of ours having never sought NTFB’s help before. At a recent distribution, more than 2,220 families lined up for food compared with the 200-300 families normally served per distribution.

We can all agree that the future of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts on the economy are uncertain. But the needs of the individuals and families that the North Texas Food Bank serve will remain constant, long after the immediate crisis has passed.

This is where, as board members, we can make an impact. If you are in the position to serve on the board of a non-profit organization or contribute to its success during these uncertain times, consider some meaningful ways to support the agencies:

  • Listen. The staff of non-profits and agencies are working the frontlines every day. They understand the needs and priorities of the organization. Listen to what they need – and what they do not need at any given time. Be prepared to pivot from your current initiatives or committee work if the priorities of the organization have changed.
  • Open Doors. Board members and those who find purpose in connecting resources are integral in helping organizations make connections and partnerships. Maintaining resources is critical right now, as these organizations struggle to keep up with the demand of services. Businesses are facing their own hardships, but many are also looking for opportunities to support their communities. The worst that can happen if you make an ask of someone is that they say no. The best that can happen is you can materially help your community. The NTFB leadership asked for the Texas National Guard to help and their efforts and results are simply amazing.
  • Encourage. The frontline work is hard – physically, mentally and emotionally. Have your company sponsor lunch for staff or send swag to volunteers. Communicate your gratitude through a note of thanks. These small gestures are sometimes the boost someone needs to keep going.

I am honored to serve on the Board for the North Texas Food Bank, and I am incredibly proud of the impact it has made in the community, both before the pandemic and especially as the hunger needs of our neighbors reach new heights. Working together – staff, board members, volunteers and community supporters – we will continue to serve those who need us most. 

Adam Saphier is a member of the Executive Committee of the North Texas Food Bank Board of Directors. He is President, Central Operations for Trammell Crow Co.