Any athlete knows the model works. Coaches take stock of players’ abilities and work to improve them on an ongoing basis. Practice, assess, tweak, improve, practice, assess, tweak, improve. Peak performance isn’t left to chance. In any context. Yet only half of nonprofit boards conducted a recent (within three years) self-assessment of their performance, according to Leading with Intent, the national index of nonprofit board practices published by BoardSource last year.
While not yet universally applied, board self-assessment certainly is a best practice. Board performance is a key element of any organization’s success. The same study showed boards that conducted a self-assessment within the past three years reported higher performing boards, better board orientation, and greater board engagement. Structured self-reflection provides a unique and essential opportunity for board members to “judge their collective performance, understand the extent of their individual responsibilities, and take action to improve board performance.”
Indeed, as noted by The Corporate Board, “assessment is one of the most powerful interventions available for turning a good board into a great board.” But how? It’s not as simple as finding the ideal board evaluation questionnaire to expose bad habits and transform the governing body of a nonprofit — or for-profit — entity. Effective board assessment is, like many governance-related things, an ongoing process and any board evaluation questionnaire is but a tool.
To design an effective board evaluation process, follow these steps:
Determine the purpose of your evaluation
According to Spencer Stuart, a common misstep among corporate boards in self-assessment is failing to agree on the purposes and objectives of the process from the onset. Consensus on what board members aim to accomplish through the process promotes their willingness to invest time, energy, and candor. Such clarification also helps boards set the proper tone for the process and correct any misimpressions of ulterior motives or futility.
In determining the focus of their evaluations, boards must resist the temptation to view themselves from a narrow lens, like that of compliance. Spencer Stuart notes that such a specific focus fails to reveal shared insight into board operations and ways to improve boards’ composition, processes and relationships.
Sometimes, the process is spurred by a specific moment in time, ie. a leadership transition, a financial crisis, or the need for a new strategic plan. In each case, a board assessment can reveal important data about the capacity of the board to forge ahead, so these circumstances can be used to inform the goals and content of the assessment.
Determine the best mechanism, point person, and process
Only after the board has clarified the purpose of the assessment can it select the right tool. Some organizations employ third parties to conduct individual interviews with all directors while others distribution a survey tool. Naturally, countless board evaluation questionnaires are available for sample (sample 1, sample 2) and purchase at various price points. For nonprofit organizations and associations, BoardSource offers popular options.
No matter what tool you choose, an external facilitator or consultant can be helpful in ensuring smooth implementation and objectivity. When board or staff leadership are responsible for collecting data, the data is skewed if board members hesitate to reveal conflict or concern. I recently met a board member who edited her own responses to a survey that was administered by the CEO, to whom she did not wish to convey her frustration about the board’s oversight role and abdication to him.
Even with outside support, champions of the board self-assessment process must be board members. Without that credibility and internal drive, the board is unlikely to take the process – or its outcomes – seriously. The board must define not only the purpose of the self-assessment, but also its steps and responsible parties, such as how board members will receive the survey (ie. via email, paper, or board management software) and how long they will have to respond; who will collect, review, and analyze the data; and what will happen with results.
Implement the evaluation
Follow your process and timeline. Remind board members of their deadline for responses. Promote their participation, whether that means printing a paper copy to scan or downloading an app to their iPads.
Review and analyze data
This is where boards sometimes lose their way. It’s easy to tabulate and distribute survey results, then bask in the glory of high scores without considering their implications. On the surface, high scores might suggest effectiveness, but they also can mean any of the following:
- The survey asked the wrong questions, focusing on areas of board strength vs. opportunity.
- Board members are comfortable with the way things are and turn a blind eye to possible change.
- Board members are focused on current functions at the expense of the future.
To best interpret results, it is important to note not only scores, but degrees of variance. Sometimes, the range of answers to a particular question is broad, indicating a lack of consensus and abundance of opinion. In other cases, there is only one outlier. Under both circumstances, it can be invaluable to explore the dissent and uncover the differences of opinion that together tell a complete story.
Develop action plans
Having invested many resources into the evaluation process, the board must ensure the productive outcome of its efforts. Based on findings from the self-assessment as well as follow-up discussions, the board presumably has identified priority issues and needs appropriate mechanisms to address them. To that end, the board must identify and ensure the human and financial resources that will be required, then — perhaps through an ad hoc committee — assign tasks on a timeline. Naturally, the board must also monitor and evaluate progress toward improvement.
In the end, board members must remember the goal of the board performance evaluation process is not necessarily to gauge the board’s effectiveness at a given time, but to identify areas for improvement on an ongoing basis.