Using assessment to accelerate board performance

A nonprofit’s board of directors is one of its most valuable resources. Unfortunately, some organizational leaders take the board’s role for granted, allowing board service to settle into a comfortable status quo. Executive directors, alternately responding to major strategic challenges and absorbed in the everyday business of the organization, can forget the board is a key asset that must be developed, tended to and mobilized just like any other. Likewise, the board’s executive committee may shy away from its own responsibility for keeping board members engaged, involved and contributing to the important work of the organization.

But how to make board development a priority when there are so many other pressing needs? Assessment is an efficient, effective way of helping boards understand what optimum performance looks like, why it is important and how they can achieve it.

Board assessment is a three-in-one package. First and foremost, it is an educational process that often helps to inform or remind boards of their roles and responsibilities. Second, it is a diagnostic tool, helping the board identify those areas where it is performing well and those where it may need to develop capacity. Third, both the process and the findings it yields create an opportunity for dialogue through which the board itself prioritizes what it must do to become the board it wants to be.

There are many different approaches to board assessment, ranging from a simple worksheet or checklist boards can fill out and discuss on their own to a more comprehensive facilitated tool or process. (Visit La Piana Consulting for a resource.)

Not all approaches will address the same topics in the same level of detail. Even so, any kind of assessment has the potential to inform and even transform how board members think about and approach their work on behalf of the organization and its mission.

Here are just a few of the benefits my colleagues and I have seen nonprofit boards gain from assessment:

Clarification of roles

One of the most common results of a board assessment is the discovery that greater clarity is needed about the board’s role in one or more areas. Fund development is a prime example. Many nonprofit leaders and board chairs lament the board is not active in fundraising but have not been clear in defining what those expectations really are. Instead, board members are left to interpret for themselves how much engagement is acceptable. Assessments can surface conflicting or incomplete understandings about the board’s role in an objective way and help the organization create the clarity needed.

Discovery of blind spots

At times, assessment can simply confirm for board members they do in fact have a role in a particular area. For example, most boards with which we have worked indicate little knowledge of or involvement in the area of risk management. This is fairly remarkable, given the nonprofit board is legally responsible for the organization’s activities. Often, however, boards trust the organization has obtained the necessary insurance coverage and turn their attention to other matters. But risk management is not a one-and-done proposition and should be revisited on at least an annual basis. Succession planning is another area where many boards have not yet actively engaged, despite acknowledging they need to start the conversation. (Visit La Piana Consulting for a resource.)

Examination of relationships

The relationship between the board and executive director or CEO is a critical element of organizational health. By asking board members to reflect on their role in hiring, supporting and monitoring the effectiveness of the executive, assessment can surface tensions or gaps in that partnership. For example, it may be the board leans too heavily on the executive, or there could be a lack of trust inhibiting a good working relationship. Similarly, the rapport among board members is often an indicator of board functioning. By eliciting candid feedback from board members about various areas of board performance, assessment can identify common and/or differing concerns, experiences, and preferences, such as might exist between new board members and their more seasoned counterparts. In each case, paying attention to individual responses as well as the aggregate result helps to distinguish what may be isolated personal issues from larger patterns of relationships.

Ability to inform engagement

Many boards engaging in assessment are in a growth stage and are navigating the shift from an operationally focused (or “working”) board to the more strategically focused policy board. In these cases, the assessment itself serves as a catalyst, encouraging board members to think more broadly about their role, their participation and their contributions to the organization. This can be both challenging and energizing for boards. Even those that are not transitioning to a policy governance focus often find the assessment has stimulated their thinking about strategic issues or priorities for organizational change. For this reason, a board assessment can be an excellent tool when preparing for strategic planning, a leadership transition or a similar transformation.

Assessment is a relatively small investment, typically requiring a modest amount of each board member’s time to fill out a form or survey and discuss the results. But it can yield real benefits, provided the quality of the assessment tool and discussion educates board members, surfaces actionable priorities and identifies steps to address them.

Finally and most heartening is the quite unexpected result we often see in the course of facilitating board self-assessments. Shining a light on the board not only helps identify opportunities for improvement, but also often elicits affirmations from board members reflecting on why they are there in the first place and how honored they are to be part of a dedicated board working with talented staff to advance the organization’s mission. It is that very commitment and willingness to serve that assessment can help energize and direct for lasting results.

See also:

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

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