With the pandemic enduring and uncertainty on the horizon, now is an excellent time to reassess your board’s performance. A check-up now can ensure that you are not just surviving, but thriving.
To test your boards critical performance or to put in place practices and strategies for a healthy and reenergized board, the best place to start is with a board assessment.
But while evaluation is a worthwhile goal, how many boards do this themselves? Is it worth the time and effort—especially if you are coming out of a tremendously tricky period? Here are four reasons why the answer is assuredly yes to doing a board evaluation.
- Peak Performance. Conducting a self-evaluation and assessment for the board is similar to evaluating the performance of a top executive: You start with a job description and conduct a periodic performance evaluation against that description.
Boards are no different—the best boards continue to build on what they are doing well and develop in areas that need strengthening to reach peak performance. Boards that regularly self-assess are also more likely to evaluate the executive director. Additionally, self-evaluation increases the likelihood that meaningful strategic planning occurs, and even fundraising improves. See Leading with Intent: BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (Washington, D.C.) BoardSource, 2021.
- Education. Developing the criteria for the board to evaluate itself also forces boards to think about what it is they are doing or should be doing now that the pandemic is receding. What are your board’s benchmarks for success?
As part of this, now is the time for all nonprofits to examine their relationship with racial, ethnic, and gender issues. Has the board been through an examination of its diversity practices? Has it examined its relationship with racial equity? Do the board members reflect the diversity of the community it serves?
What are the board’s responsibilities? What are the fiduciary, managerial, or fundraising roles? Do the agendas and meetings focus on important strategic and generative issues rather than mundane reports? Does fundraising capacity need to improve?
The process of developing questions and indicators for board evaluation helps the board identify its standards for top performance.
- Energize and Build Your Team. We sometimes hear board members complain that they do too much listening and not enough participating in leading the organization. Developing and doing the self-evaluation and assessment process is an active step that often energizes the entire board.
Promoting honest conversations around these topics gets them out in the open without any hidden agendas. In these times of authentic discussion about racial equity, has the board done any self-examination? It helps build the board members’ trust and relationships with each other. For example, the board members’ lack of participation in fundraising efforts would be easier to discuss through this assessment model; if done in a constructive rather than a critical manner, it can move the dialogue forward on a broad range of issues.
- Create a Roadmap. The assessment results will point to strengths, such as fiduciary or financial knowledge among board members or a dynamic committee structure that can become building blocks for new endeavors.
It will also help the board determine what needs further development or training (e.g., diversity, planning, fundraising, recruitment governance, all come to mind). Assessment helps with better recruitment and orientation in the future, as well as building self-assessment into an ongoing part of the boards process. All of these outcomes can help build the boards’ goals and objectives for the coming year, and you can set time aside at a retreat to discuss, train, or further develop operations.
It is worth noting that an evaluation at a time of crisis may not be appropriate, but if the situation has passed or at least is not at its peak, this would be an opportunity to start to address the issues raised. If you have just added or are about to add new members, an assessment can be an excellent introduction to what it means to be an influential board member today.
Self-assessment and evaluation are worthwhile and critical components to ensure your board is functioning at its highest level and working to accomplish its mission. It may result in board training (an overlooked area) or some focus or action (review by-laws, create fundraising committee, research executive compensation etc.).
Sample Board Evaluation Questions
Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree (scale of 1-5 five being agree strongly) with the following statements.
- The board did well during the pandemic.
- The board monitors and evaluates the performance of the executive director on a regular basis (at least every other year).
- All members participate on some level in the evaluation.
- Annual performance goals are set by the board and CEO.
- The board reviews the compensation package of top executives for reasonableness.
- The process of review and compensation is documented in writing.
- There is a succession plan in place.
- Board members discuss organization-wide policy issues, rather than managing the day-to-day affairs of the organization (i.e., not micromanaging the staff).
- The board reviews personnel policies periodically.
- The board ensures a whistle blower policy exists.
- The board ensures a document destruction policy exists.
- Board members regularly read and prepare for board meetings ahead of time.
- There is a diversity of board members.
- The diversity mirrors the client base.
- There is sufficient diversity training of the board.
- All members participate in fundraising for the organization.
- There is a strategic plan in the last few years and board meetings use the strategic plan to measure progress.
- The board reviews and understands financial statements regularly.
- Financials controls are in place.
- (Open-ended) Do you have suggestions for improvement?
You can develop your own grid or questionnaire, adapt one found on web, or hire a consultant to help with the process.
In case you missed it…
Ann W. Lehman, Nonprofit Consultant and Principal at Zimmerman Lehman, has worked in the public interest arena for more than 30 years. Ann received her B.A. from Rutgers University and J.D. from Northwestern School of Law in Portland, OR. Immediately after law school, Ann supervised a storefront public interest law center in Portland geared to senior citizens. She was the Executive Director of the progressive legal organization in New York City and the California Law Center on Long Term Care in San Francisco. Ann has taught workshops and facilitated retreats in such areas as board responsibilities and recruitment, strategic planning, transparency and accountability, leadership, advocacy, human rights, and gender analysis and budgeting. Her inclusive style, combined with a down-to-earth approach, are accessible to individuals with a wide variety of knowledge and ability. She is the co-author of Board Members Rule: How to Be a Strategic Advocate for your Nonprofit and Boards That Love Fundraising: A How-To Guide For Your Board. Ann is editor of ZimNotes, a nonprofit e-newsletter now in its 26th year of publication.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Heather J. Christensen says
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Becky Schueller says
Hey Ann, Thanks for the article and no worries on the “pandemic ending” language. You get grace for that :). Board self-assessments are really important so I appreciate the time you put into this. I would add a question like “The Board and ED consider themselves partners in the organization’s work, and our Board-ED partnership is strong. There are regular (i.e. monthly) opportunities for the ED to request Exec. Cte. or Board Chair time for support and problem-solving.” And, I’d add one on “Board Members, individually and collectively, prioritize and make time for their ongoing learning, development, and growth as board members.”
Ann Lehman says
I reread that myself and said did I really write that? It was on the downswing when I wrote it, in my defense, but that after vaccinations and before Delta. The other advice is still good:-)
Hale Turner says
Was lead here to gladly not have to lead a snarky comment. The email which was linked to this blog says “With the pandemic ending, now is an excellent time to reassess your board’s performance. A check-up now can ensure that you are not just surviving, but thriving.” and I went WHAT? With the pandemic ending? Wait what? It’s over? whoohoo!