Ensuring organizational accountability is a key role for any nonprofit board. On behalf of the public and the people or causes served, the board must ensure that organizational resources are effectively used to serve the mission. Accordingly, the board holds the staff responsible for good management and program implementation but must hold itself accountable for the quality of the organization’s governance. Through periodic performance assessments a board can identify ways to strengthen its operations in service to the organization and its mission.
A number of tools are available to help nonprofit boards achieve greater clarity about their own effectiveness. Most are designed as self-assessment questionnaires which ask directors to rate the board’s performance in major areas of board responsibility. Some sources of evaluation tools are listed below.
Why conduct a board self-assessment?
Board assessments serve many purposes, some internal to the board and some in relation to other constituencies. A systematic assessment process will:
A board assessment must be legitimate in the eyes of board members. The opinions of outsiders can be discounted, but what a board says about itself must be taken seriously. A self-assessment is more likely to lead to changes in the way the board operates. However, a self-assessment does not necessarily exclude input from other sources. The board may, for example, choose to ask the executive director and senior staff to provide feedback.
When to conduct a board self-assessment
A full-scale assessment may be desirable only once every two or three years, with interim assessments conducted to monitor progress on objectives set after the last assessment. Times when a self-assessment may be particularly useful include:
How to conduct a self-assessment
An assessment process involves a number of steps:
Is it worth it?
Properly conducted and followed up with action, evaluation can have a profound impact upon a board. as reported by two directors. “Ultimately, the process transformed us from a traditional show-and-tell to a much more dynamic give-and-take board,” said one. “It provided the impetus to move our board forward on issues that had been simmering on the back burner,” another commented. “It brought our board members closer together as people . . . helping to break down barriers, establish camaraderie, and open up dialogue.”
Self-assessment may be the best way to reach the root of governance problems and find lasting solutions that will make your board better.
- give individual board members an opportunity to reflect on their individual and corporate responsibilities,
- identify different perceptions and opinions among board members,
- point to questions that need board attention,
- serve as a springboard for board improvements,
- increase the level of board teamwork,
- provide an opportunity for clarifying mutual board and staff expectations,
- demonstrate to the staff and others that accountability is a serious organizational value, and
- provide credibility with funders and other external audiences.
- at the outset of a strategic planning process
- in preparation for major expansion or capital campaign
- when there is a sense of low energy, high turnover, or uncertainty about board responsibilities
- after a financial or executive leadership crisis.
- Decide to conduct the assessment. This must be a board decision. Assign the responsibility for making the necessary arrangements to a small task force or to the governance committee.
- Decide whether to use a standard instrument designed for board evaluations or to design a process from scratch.
- Decide whether to use an outside consultant to administer and facilitate the process. Using an outsider to administer the questionnaire will make it more likely that board members will give frank answers. An outside facilitator of the board’s follow-up discussion will encourage open and constructive debate.
- Distribute the instrument and ask board members to complete and return the questionnaire to the designated person.
- Compile, analyze, and present responses in a written report that is distributed to board members.
- Discuss the findings, perhaps in a retreat setting, and identify actions that will lead to improved performance. If an outside facilitator has been engaged, this person will already have collected additional information about the board (bylaws, meeting minutes, committee structure, etc.), and will have discussed the agenda with the person(s) charged to arrange for the assessment.