At some point in their existence, most boards decide to try to improve their performance by conducting some type of evaluation. If you are thinking about board evaluation, there are a number choices that you must make.
- What to evaluate: board performance, individual member performance, or both;
- How to evaluate: self-evaluate or bring in a consultant (paid or volunteer)?
- What standards to use: what are the characteristics of a good-performing board?
- When to evaluate: what purposes will be served by the evaluation?
For their first attempt at evaluation, many boards decide to conduct a self-evaluation of the board’s overall performance. The logic behind this is clear. Why spend money on something we can do ourselves? Self-evaluation forms are easily available in print and on the internet. Many of them are written by highly respected experts on nonprofit governance. This looks like a “no-brainer.”
I’ve been part of a number of these exercises and I have reviewed quite a few “off-the-shelf” board evaluation questionnaires. While self-assessment with packaged questionnaires can sometimes be helpful, I have had more bad experiences than good ones. Here are a few things I have learned from the experience that might help you conduct a successful self-evaluation.
Don’t evaluate performance against criteria that have been established by someone who doesn’t know your board and your organization. Most off-the-shelf evaluations are based on the notion that all boards are alike — or at least that they are similar enough that a generic evaluation will work. In my experience, they don’t. Boards are extremely diverse and many of the evaluation criteria will not apply to your board. When I encounter a lot of irrelevant questions, I quickly lose my sense of commitment to the process. I strongly suggest that you assess several evaluation tools and build your own questionnaire. Select questions that are relevant to your organization and adapt them to suit your structure and approach to governance.
Set the standards before you evaluate. It is demoralizing and frustrating to be criticized for not doing something that you didn’t know you were supposed to do. Don’t assess performance against standards that have not been agreed upon in advance. Evaluation tools express the author’s view of what a good board should do. Once you have adapted an off-the-shelf questionnaire, be sure that there is consistency between your evaluation standards and your board job descriptions. Follow up with some board training around the standards. Only when your directors know what is expected of them, should you begin to assess their performance.
Plan your process to respect everyone’s confidentiality. To make self-evaluation work, everyone must be honest. This can be hard to do, especially if the evaluation forms will be compiled by a board colleague. Get an independent third party, paid or volunteer, to receive and compile the completed self-assessment forms. Board members should see only the compiled results.
Consider your answer scale carefully. Make sure that you include “don’t know” and “not applicable” options. These answers can tell you a lot about the training needs of directors.
Don’t try to be too comprehensive. There are many dimensions and elements to the board’s job. There are a number of tools that assess all of them at once. These questionnaires are either too long or too superficial to be practical as a self-evaluation tool. A better strategy is to focus on one or two elements. Attendance, for example, or meeting procedure, or board job descriptions can be assessed quickly using questionnaires. Follow up quickly to try to make some incremental improvements. Then, move on to another aspect of board performance. Don’t shoot for the moon. Start with small changes and celebrate small successes. This will help build the commitment to take on more substantial tasks.
Commit to making good use of what you learn from the evaluation. A good evaluation will give you a picture of the current strengths and weaknesses of the board. This information can help you plan your recruitment strategies and other ways to strengthen the board. These might include board training programs, attendance at community training events and conferences, or mentoring programs. If you don’t have the energy or the will to follow up on what you learn, you’ll just be wasting everyone’s precious time, and using up a finite amount of your board members’ goodwill.