We’re accustomed to taking our cars in for regular maintenance, to accompanying our kids to check-ups at the dentist, and scheduling haircuts with a certain amount of regularity. Both mechanical and organic systems require regular attention and maintenance. The nonprofit board is no exception.
Just as it’s important for the board to evaluate its chief executive, a board should also conduct a regular evaluation of its own work and performance as a governing body. With the evaluation information, the board can then design ways to improve how well it does its work. Because board performance is a key factor in a nonprofit’s effectiveness, time spent on board evaluation and maintenance is an investment that helps improve the entire organization.
Developing an assessment process
Developing an assessment by using the board member job description is the easiest way to evaluate the board’s work. Simply list the responsibilities outlined in the job description along with a three point scale—above average; average, and needs improvement—next to each. Have each board member indicate his or her rating for how the board, as a whole, is performing in each responsibility area. Allow a place for comments with each rating so members can provide additional detail if they choose.
In addition to asking members how well the board is fulfilling its responsibilities, a board may also want to assess the processes with which it does its work, such as its board meetings. A meeting assessment can include questions about meeting structure (length, beginning/ending on time, and ease of location) as well as questions about meeting process (decision making, member discussion, provision of appropriate information). Board meeting assessments can provide insight into the board’s culture, help describe how well members work together, and show what kind of support—or barriers—exist to board member engagement.
Distributing hard copies of an assessment at the end of a board meeting and collecting them before members leave helps ensure full board participation in the assessment. Allowing members to provide information anonymously may encourage more candor in the ratings and comments.
Because one of the basic responsibilities of a board is to manage and maintain itself, board assessments should be initiated and led by the board, rather than staff, leadership. Assessment can be managed by the board chair or the executive committee or it could be a responsibility of the governance committee or a designated taskforce.
Using the assessment to move the board forward
The assessment process does not end with the tabulation and reporting of results. Taking time in a board meeting, typically in executive session, to discuss the results and set goals to improve board performance are important components of the assessment process. The real benefit in conducting an assessment is in using the results to improve how well the board does its work. Without setting goals for improvement, the process doesn’t help move the board forward.
If there are many areas in need of improvement, it’s wise to pick only a few on which to focus the board’s efforts. Choosing those that have the closest links to the organization’s strategic goals will have the biggest impact on organizational performance
A simple board assessment process is better than no assessment process. Figure out what is feasible for the board to do this year and move ahead with it. There are numerous examples of nonprofit board assessments, most of which can be adapted to meet a board’s specific needs. Checking with other organizations to see what they use, talking to area foundations for suggestions, or even doing a quick Google search should yield ideas and examples to help start the assessment development process. At minimum, the board should have an annual discussion about how well it is performing and determine the steps it can take to improve its work. Once a process is in place, it can be refined as the board uses it.
Because the board plays a significant role in the overall health of the organization, it’s important that it is functioning well. A board functions better when it takes the time to set performance goals based upon its examination of what it is doing well and where it is under-performing. Regular board performance check-ups provide a health benefit to the entire organization.