Provide your board with an unbiased view of how well the nonprofit is performing.
Who should judge if a meal is good? The cook? The nutritionist? The restaurant critic? Aristotle had a good answer long ago: “The guest is a better judge of the feast than the cook.”
There are 360 degrees in a circle, and the 360-Degree Look places the organization at the center of the circle and looks at it from the viewpoint of its many constituencies. In particular, the 360-Degree Look helps compensate for the board’s limited view of how well the organization is functioning. There are several reasons for this limited view.
First, board members often have only a little time each month to spend on their volunteer board commitments.
Second, board members are often unfamiliar with the program area of the organization, whether that is pesticide research, early childhood development, or nursing home standards. Hopefully, board members do know about the needs and desire of the organization’s constituents, but that may not be the case.
Finally, board members often receive most or all of their information from the organization’s executive — not entirely a bias-free source.
Time for a Fresh Perspective?
In a 360-Degree Look, the board and the staff management team seek feedback from those who stand around the outside of the circle as well as inside it: clients, the community, volunteers, donors, funders, and staff. While such a project might be seen as threatening or overly time-consuming by staff, it’s an infrequent project, done perhaps every five years, or when a fresh perspective is wanted. Having it led by a board-staff task force can alleviate staff fears and create a precedent for such board-staff teams. Like any project, a 360-Degree Look can get bigger and bigger; keep it modest and do-able.
The following steps can be considered as examples of ways to obtain input from a variety of constituents and sources:
1. Clients or patrons (the diners)
Program evaluation techniques are designed to determine the impacts of particular program interventions. A 360-Degree Look is more exploratory, more holistic, looking for how patrons and clients feel about what we do, and seeks unexpected insights.
Consider holding one or two focus groups with clients or patrons, facilitated by an experienced focus group leader, where they can give feedback on current services and unmet needs.
A more extensive client/patron survey can involve a written questionnaire, a telephone survey, or in-person interviews. Even as few as five or ten open-ended interviews can be provide new, valuable insights.
Some example questions:
- How did you first hear about Spruce?
- What was your first contact with Spruce like?
- What makes it difficult for you to use Spruce’s services / attend Spruce’s performances? What bothers you about Spruce?
- What do you wish that Spruce did that it doesn’t do now?
- Spruce is thinking about asking patients for donations by mail / changing the matinee ticket price, etc. What would your reaction be to something like this?
2. Staff (the kitchen and wait staff)
Consider asking staff to anonymously complete a short questionnaire to learn more about how they see the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Make it clear that this survey is one of the ways, not the only way, that the board is conducting the assessment. While a full report probably shouldn’t be given to all staff, the staff will appreciate hearing back some of the highlights from what you find. Here are some sample survey statements:
How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
- The Spruce Organization (fictitious name) consistently does quality work.
- I am proud to be an employee of this organization.
- I am embarrassed to be an employee of this organization.
- The duties of my job are clear to me.
- I have confidence in the staff leadership of this organization.
- Most of the time, I have enough time to complete my work assignments.
- I worry that our financial situation is unstable.
- I am respected by my supervisor.
- I am respected by people who report to me.
- Our organization does too much/too little/the right mix. Please comment.
3. Donors and volunteers (the friends)
Staff and board members can conduct telephone interviews with major donors and key volunteers, asking for feedback on how well the organization involves and informs them, and seeking perceptions about the organization’s effectiveness. Here are some sample questions:
- How did it come about that you are a donor to Spruce [or a volunteer with Spruce]?
- You have many choices in where to make donations [or volunteer]. What made you choose Spruce as one of those places?
- Have we thanked you appropriately? Too much? Too little? On time? Did you appreciate the framed poster we sent, or did you think it was an unnecessar expense?
- Have our staff been appropriately responsive to you, in giving you information about Spruce’s procedures, organization, or clients? What, if anything, do you have questions about?
- If there were one thing you would like to see Spruce change, what would it be?”
4. Foundation, corporate, and government funders (the financiers)
Board members can conduct a series of telephone interviews with foundation and government program officers, in which a board member asks, for example, for comments on the quality of written proposals submitted, quality of communication and interaction with the agency, the organization’s reputation in the community, and suggested areas for improvement or change. Here is an excerpt from a sample interview script:
“As you know from the letter you received last week, the Spruce Organization is conducting a 360-Degree Look at our organization. I’m a board member of Spruce, and I want to ask you a few questions . . .
- How well acquainted are you with Spruce’s programs and operations?
- What do you think Spruce does very well?
- Are there some activities you think we do poorly, that should be discontinued, or that need improvement?
- How would you characterize the quality and promptness of our proposals and reports?
- From your direct interactions with Spruce, what is your general impression?
- If there were one thing you would like to see Spruce change, what would it be?”
5. Independent program and management evaluators (the nutritionists and the restaurant critics)
In addition to an annual audit by a certified public accountant, the board can contract with consultants to assess an aspect of the organization’s programming or management. Such consultations can involve different components, such as an examination of personnel procedures or an analysis of organizational compliance with relevant regulations. Professional program evaluators assess human service and other types of programs both to find ways that the programs can be improved and to determine the outcomes of the agency’s services and the impact on clients and the community. Arts consultants look at the artistic quality of an organization and compare its strengths and weaknesses to others. Remember that restaurant critics aren’t always right, but if they have a complaint it may be something that’s easy to fix.
6. What’s on the web about our organization?
Do a Google or Yahoo search on the name of your organization. Look at your Form 990 to see what you’ve told the IRS and the public. See whether and how you have been rated by one of the online charity rating agencies. Create a Yahoo Alert or Google Alert and get emails every time your organization is mentioned on the web.
Using the Information
The committee or task force that has led the 360-Degree Look has the important responsibility of making sense of all the material.
For example, interviews with funders may reveal that grant reports are well written but often late; the executive director should have this feedback. There may be patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction among staff that can be useful planning information for the management team.
An idea for change can unexpectedly show up from several different kinds of people — such as a desire for an organizational name change — and should be taken seriously by the board as a suggestion.
The interviews may show that the organization is gaining or losing luster in the community; such a finding may bear further investigation.
The committee can make its report to a board meeting, perhaps with the staff management team present. Present it in sections and after each section, ask for reactions and ideas: is there something we should look into more closely? How can we celebrate good news?
Proceed with Caution
The information gathered in a 360-Degree Look needs to be used with care. The staff needs to hear critical as well as positive comments from clients, but they may not need to hear the exact wording of an overly harsh statement by an obvious crank. In addition, a 360 Look is not the same as an evaluation of the executive director.
The information gathered may be best used in organizational planning, and only used in a secondary way in the executive director’s annual assessment.
The 360-Degree Look doesn’t replace systems for getting ongoing feedback. But the information you gather may help you decide to offer more fish dishes or pay more attention to the coffee being hot enough. You might change the way the dinner shift turns over. You might think to point out on your menu that you don’t use any trans fats, and to frame a restaurant review for your front window. And remember that you can’t please everyone. Aristotle also said, “A great city is not to be confounded with a big one.”
About the Author
Dennis Walsh, CPA, volunteers his post-retirement time helping North Carolina nonprofits with accounting concerns, work for which he recently received the Community Service Award from the Guilford Nonprofit Consortium. He shares his expertise nationally with nonprofits through Blue Avocado. Through the Deborah and Dennis Walsh Foundation, he has also published “Legal & Tax Issues for North Carolina Nonprofits” and Man From Macedonia, a memoir by civil rights leader Aaron Johnson. Dennis also authored the Blue Avocado article Nonprofit Bookkeeping Test, which is one of the ten most viewed Blue Avocado articles of all time. Dennis can be reached through the Micah Project. A version of this article was published by the Planned Giving Design Center.
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.