Board Surveys

Ode to Board Surveys: Past, Present, and Future

That moment when your read or hear something that stops you in your tracks – it’s transformative. Maybe it inspires new ideas or just encourages you to look differently at the same old thing. Like your board meeting. Or the tools you use in them. Consider the survey, an instrument commonly distributed to board members to solicit data about the board’s performance in the previous year. Practical, informative, invaluable. But sufficient?

No, not the tool itself — I mean the application. We often think of a survey as a convenient tool for collecting data to evaluate something that happened: board, chief executive, and organizational performance over the year; staff satisfaction; meeting effectiveness. While that’s certainly true, a survey also can be utilized to inform that which is yet to be.

Role of Surveys in Strategic Planning

In looking ahead, most organizations recognize the value of a current, comprehensive strategic plan, which typically takes many months and resources to develop. A tempting shortcut in the strategic planning process is counting a nonprofit’s board and staff as representative of diverse perspective on community need. While these internal stakeholders likely are the most well-informed about the mission and business model, an array of external stakeholders can bring fresh, candid, and varied viewpoints into the planning process. Sometimes an in-depth interview with a board member or external consultant will extract critical perspective; sometimes a focus group or town hall meeting with constituents will work; other times it will require an anonymous survey.

As illustrated by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, there are countless questions and survey formats that will solicit information from constituents. Their genuine feedback will inform strategic priorities and ensure the plan is aligned with current community need.

Though a constituent survey surely informs the board, it also transcends it – the tool’s distribution list will be broad. To expedite the data gathering process, a longtime BoardEffect client used its platform for planning, inviting key stakeholders to join a planning workroom where they could complete a timely survey.

Board Profile Questionnaires

The benefits of having a current strategic plan permeate an organization, as the plan should inform all activities, from programming and budgeting to fundraising goals and the recruitment of new board members. Building the best board means aligning its collective skill set with those needed to achieve strategic goals. Optimal board recruitment, then, is a strategic process that includes profiling the board to determine what talent and representation you have in order to identify what’s missing.

To profile your board, consider surveying board members about the following items, as relevant to your organization and dictated by your strategic plan:

  • Demographics (ie. age, ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, income level)
  • Relationships (ie. professional networks, employer, field of practice, affiliations)
  • Skill sets (ie. profession, expertise, education and credentials, experience)
  • Interests and attributes (ie. leadership, serving as an officer, fundraising, marketing)

Once completed, the board profile survey provides a visual depiction of where gaps might be and what’s needed in new board members to augment the existing governing body.

Double-Duty Board Meeting Surveys

Surveys are not new to the board room. Some boards use the tool to evaluate every board meeting, gaging such aspects as efficiency, adherence to the agenda, relevance of the agenda, timing, areas of greatest effectiveness, and areas of needed improvement. Implementing a post-meeting survey to assess every meeting can be helpful to board leadership in fostering ongoing board engagement.

Still, surveys about board meetings can do way more than look back; in the spirit of generative governance (summarized by Bill Ryan in a presentation entitled, “Governance as Leadership: Key Concepts,” for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto), they can face forward – at least to inform future meetings.

In essence, according to Ryan, generative thinking involves looking outside the usual framework of overall operations and getting to the heart of an organization’s core purpose. It’s about “deciding on what to decide, probing assumptions about the organization, and identifying the underlying values that should be driving strategy and tactics.”

So how can a survey help? Include open-ended questions, such as “what topic did we not cover in the meeting?” or “if we had an extra ten minutes, what topic should we have explored?” In addition, your survey can explore the unknown with questions like, “what elephants are in the board room?” or “what’s changed since we developed our strategic plan and how will it impact our ability to achieve it?” Out-of-the-box survey questions invite board members to think differently, not only about board meetings, but about the board’s role and the organization as a whole.

It was a CompassPoint blogger who stopped me in my tracks while discussing how she shifted her board’s approach to governance. In citing a colleague, this nonprofit executive said, “Don’t do anything at a board meeting that you can do at home in your pajamas (the bunny slipper rule).”

It’s true – board members can read reports and digest data in advance to prepare for meetings and they can answer questions in advance via survey to frame critical discussions. Surveys can be essential tools for boards striving to keep members engaged at peak performance levels.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.