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Assessing Board Performance Is Critical For Consistent Success

Assessing Board Performance: Best Practices for Nonprofits

Behind every great nonprofit is a hardworking board. While board members may put many hours of time and effort into their board duties, it’s fair to ask whether they’re getting results that fulfill their mission.

Nonprofit boards can only discover the accurate indicator of board performance by doing an annual board assessment that incorporates best practices for board assessments into the process. A thorough evaluation of a nonprofit board’s performance includes an assessment of individual performances and the board as a whole.

In the business of nonprofit management, it’s easy for boards to make excuses for not doing an annual board self-evaluation. The reasons boards fail to evaluate themselves are not knowing how to do them or not having the time to do them. If board directors with previous board experience haven’t done self-evaluations previously, they may not be motivated to do them on the next board. They may have served on nonprofit boards that had different expectations for themselves. Some experienced board members may have served on boards that didn’t necessarily focus on good governance.

The National Council of Nonprofits says that more nonprofits would benefit from a self-assessment process every year. The best way to do that is to plan an annual self-assessment and follow through with it.

How often should your board perform board assessments? Due to the unique characteristics of each nonprofit, there is no simple, straightforward answer to the question. BoardSource recommends nonprofits perform board assessments every year. Other organizations say every two to three years; for very large nonprofits or those experiencing strong growth, once a year may be more appropriate. 

Getting Started with a Board Assessment

Every board has to begin the process of doing board assessments somewhere. Getting into the practice of doing board assessments is indeed more difficult if it hasn’t been a long-standing protocol, but it’s not impossible.

To begin with, boards that are committed to doing a board assessment need to take the first step of having a general discussion about the role of the board. Taking this step will ensure that the entire board is on the same page and that they share the same expectations. To prevent the issue from continually being overlooked, place the issue of a board discussion about board self-evaluation on your agenda.

A couple of the primary questions that boards need to be discussing at the time of board self-evaluations and all year long are:

1. Why does the nonprofit exist?

2. How can the board advance the organization’s mission?

 In addition to these questions, best practices for nonprofit board assessments recommend that board directors should reflect on their roles as board directors.

Be aware that it may take time to get full buy-in from the entire board for conducting board self-evaluations. Some board members may not fully understand the importance of board self-evaluations concerning good governance practices. Other board members may needlessly feel threatened by the process.

Ultimately, nonprofit boards need to assess whether the expectations they have for themselves match their performance and whether they’re meeting the needs of the organization.

Board Self-Assessments Ensure Strong Board Leadership

Communities depend on nonprofit organizations to provide them with services they can’t get from the government and can’t get on their own. That’s a fundamental reason for nonprofit boards to ensure that they follow good governance principles and fully commit to their role as board members.

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Nonprofit organizations are legally required to state the purpose of their existence on the IRS Form 990. The government mandates that nonprofit boards effectively work toward the purpose they stated in their founding documents. Without annual board self-assessments, nonprofit boards risk straying too far away from their original mission and intent.

Beyond ensuring that your nonprofit is providing its intended service, following best practices for assessing board performance helps the board to identify issues that need clarification.

For nonprofit organizations, the future is just as important as the present. Board recruitment has to be a continual activity to ensure that a nonprofit organization continues to have strong leadership in the coming years. Annual board performance assessment should include an assessment of the board’s skills so the board can determine if any of the current board members have the right skills to consider asking them to commit to a consecutive term. In light of board recruitment, nonprofit boards should always be forward-thinking and consider the needs of the nonprofit’s leadership over the next 3-5 years.

What Are the Best Practices for Assessing Board Performance?

While many nonprofit boards fail to assess their boards annually, no shortage of nonprofit boards makes it an annual practice. These nonprofits set the standards for best practices for assessing board performance. If board assessments are new for your organization, it makes sense to spend the time looking at other nonprofits that have been doing self-assessments over the long term. There is much to learn from seasoned nonprofit organizations about templates for surveys, leading the assessment process, and what issues to evaluate.

Generally, best practices for assessing board performance require doing it annually, adequate planning, and establishing a process.

Once the board has had the initial conversation about their purpose and expectations for assessing board performance, they need to establish a process. The answers to the following questions will give you an excellent place to start:

  • What tools will you use? Surveys, online questionnaires, templates from another nonprofit, board management solution
  • Who will lead the board assessment? The board chair, independent facilitator, a committee?
  • Will the assessment tools be anonymous, or will the board be transparent about the answers?
  • What areas will the board evaluate?
  •  Will you evaluate individuals, the entire board, or both?

 While newer board members may not have enough experience to contribute significantly to their answers for a board assessment, it’s important not to make exceptions for including them.

Best practices for assessing board performance include using the results to aid strategic planning. This is an important point that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Overall, boards should enter the board assessment process with a narrow focus on the nonprofit’s purpose.

Tools for Nonprofit Board Self-Evaluation

What tools will your board need to gather or implement before starting your self-evaluation? Put thought into which tools will help your board yield the most meaningful results. After the first self-assessment, you should have a better idea of whether to keep the same tools, add new ones, or eliminate a few.

A checklist is handy for making sure your board is in agreement with the topics you want to assess.

Your board can learn a lot from reviewing sample self-assessments. Such tools will help you organize your questionnaires and fine-tune them according to your needs so you don’t miss a beat. 

A self-assessment template gives you a fill-in-the-blank outline that you can use every year to add and modify your nonprofit board assessment questions. Your questionnaires will help your board gauge your progress. 

The National Council of Nonprofits put out a nice Tip Sheet For Candid Conversations About Board Governance which outlines specific areas your board can strive to improve on and correlates practice tips. The tip sheet should make for lively board discussions. 

Finally, leverage a board management solution that you can use to store your template, checklist, and sample self-assessments so they’re accessible year after year. 

Developing a Nonprofit Board Assessment Checklist

The Center for Nonprofit Leadership offers a prime example of a Board of Directors’ Assessment. One approach is to break down your checklist by assessing the board, board members, and structure. 

For example, checks for board responsibilities might include the following:

  • Understanding board roles and responsibilities
  • Using data to measure progress
  • Reviewing reports
  • Monitoring finances
  • Strategizing, setting short and long-term goals
  • Reviewing executive director compensation
  • Reviewing the audit report and Form 990
  • Allowing all voices to be heard in a collegial manner

Checks for board members might include:

  • Being involved in fundraising
  • Being a good steward of the nonprofit’s finances
  • Effectively communicating the nonprofit’s mission
  • Making a commitment to training, education, mentorship
  • Level of engagement
  • Making personal contributions

Checks for evaluating the structure might include:

  • Understanding the board’s structure and making necessary changes
  • Evaluation of the effectiveness of committees and workgroups
  • Board meeting frequency and length
  • Development of a diverse, inclusive board
  • Establishing an emergency succession plan and building leadership capacity
  • Establishing and reviewing core policies (conflict of interest, whistleblower, document retention, etc.)

Assessing Board Performance: What Specific Areas Should Nonprofit Boards Include?

There are no hard and fast rules about the specific areas that nonprofit boards should assess. Essentially, any areas the board deems appropriate are acceptable for a board assessment. Here’s a good list to get you started:

  • Board roles and responsibilities
  • Recruiting, orienting, training, and equipping board members
  • Board committees
  • Board meetings
  • Board policies
  • Oversight of legal matters
  • Strategic planning
  • Board’s oversight of personnel management
  • Board’s oversight of financial matters
  • Board oversight of fundraising activities
  • Board participation and morale
  • Forward-thinking and future-oriented

 An annual board self-assessment exercise provides many benefits for nonprofit boards. It may help the board prevent problems that could lead to liability issues for the board and themselves. The results of your annual assessment will also highlight some topics for future board discussion and consideration.

If time is truly an issue, nonprofit boards may opt to conduct individual board member assessments one year and alternate with complete board assessments the following year. Doing board assessments will become easier and less time-consuming each time. The most important thing is to commit to doing them and follow through.

 

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