Below is the chapter “New Practices for Board Assessments” I wrote for the book “YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs.” This book is part of the “In the Trenches” series published by CharityChannel Press and lovingly edited by Terrie Temkin, PhD.
New Practices for Board Assessments
How do you measure board effectiveness? What practices lead to high functioning boards? There is no clear answer, but there are some research-tested practices that at least hint at answers. One of these practices is the annual board assessment.
Annual board assessments can help the directors of your board evaluate the effectiveness of their work—especially their ability to govern and plan for the future. This practice often increases legitimacy internally and externally by demonstrating accountability. I wanted to explore how board assessments could be improved to clarify how to better serve the board’s needs, lead to buy-in, and create change that brings about the desired impact.
You can find an abundance of sample and standardized board assessments online. But do these assessments provide the board with the information it really needs to lead to action? Or do these tools simply allow the board to easily fulfill a yearly responsibility? I fear the latter. By incorporating a few basic elements of evaluation into the yearly practice of board assessments, boards can create an assessment process that is more integrated and customized.
Elements of Evaluation That Could Improve Board Assessments
Now that I’m talking about evaluation, you are probably panicking. You may be breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about the logic models that will be involved, or trying to remember the difference between an output and an outcome. But have no fear. I suggest incorporating just a few simple elements of evaluation. You can create an assessment from scratch using this process, or you can tweak your existing assessment or an off-the-shelf template.
Below are the four elements of evaluation that can improve your board assessment process. They are listed in order and, hopefully, with enough context to implement them with ease.
1. Clarify What You are Assessing
Make sure everyone is in agreement about what you are assessing. Are you assessing the performance of the full board? Do you want to assess something about individual board members? Are you considering the past year or a different timeframe? Perhaps you want to assess more than one thing such as the full board and the committees. That’s fine. But being explicit and in agreement about this at the start will ensure that the assessment can be prepared accordingly.
It’s also important to clarify who your audience is going to be. In most cases the actual results of a board assessment will be shared in a document designed for internal use only. But if you were asked to share the results with a wider audience, or wanted to, it would impact how you conduct the assessment, from the questions you ask to the way you present the findings.
When you conduct an evaluation for internal use, you might be looking for answers to questions like: Are the board members engaged? Do they understand their role?
In cases where you will share information with funders or clients, you might explore: How is the board of directors providing leadership to the organization? What impact is the work of the board of directors having on the financial sustainability of the organization? (Of course, you might want the answers to these questions for internal use, too!)
2. Identify the Purpose of Your Assessment
Identifying the purpose of your assessment may seem really obvious—to assess the board! But when you dig a little deeper you can see that there are many reasons to conduct an assessment. Different people on the board and in the organization may have different assumptions about the purpose of the assessment. By going through this process, you can help ensure that the board is in agreement about the purpose of the assessment and that the assessment is set up to fulfill this purpose. Below are examples of the reasons a board may conduct an assessment:
- You want to find out what the board is doing well and where the board needs to improve.
- You need information to help you make a decision. Perhaps you are trying to decide what committees to form or whether to increase or decrease the size of the board.
- You need to identify skill gaps on the board or assess the directors’ development needs.
- You need to assess progress towards established goals or outcomes. Perhaps your board went through a development process and you want to see if your efforts made the intended impact.
- You are conducting a board assessment to meet the expectations or requirements of a funder or influential stakeholder. Just a note…If you are going to do the work anyway, make sure you are getting something useful out of the process while meeting the needs of that external stakeholder.
If you look at these reasons to conduct a board assessment above and think “Yes!” to all of them, take a deep breath and hold yourself back. Focus in on one to three purposes this year.
3. Create the right assessment tool
The most common form of an assessment is a survey. Whether it’s online or on paper, most board assessments consist of questions that board members respond to individually. You might create one specifically for your board, or use a template. Either option is fine and may serve your purposes well. But, here are a few things to consider:
- Can you get the information you need with closed-ended questions or should you ask open-ended questions?
Open-ended questions not only take more time to answer, but they take more time and expertise to analyze. Closed-ended questions can be analyzed and interpreted more quickly and easily, but you won’t get the same level of detail and nuance. The type of question you ask will affect how many questions you ask, how long it takes for board members to complete the survey, how long it takes to analyze the results and the type of information you’ll get in the end.
Closed-ended question: Please select your top three development needs from the options listed.
Open-ended question: What support do you need to better fulfill your duties as a board member?
- Are the results going to be anonymous or will board members be identified? This might impact the types of questions you ask and how people answer.
- Are you asking the right questions? Go through each question on the assessment. Is it helping you gather information related to one of your identified purposes? What will the results look like? Is that really the type of information you are looking for? Will you be able to use it in the way you hope to?
It’s easy to stray and throw in extra questions because they might provide interesting information or because you are afraid of leaving something out. But having an assessment that is too long or asks superfluous questions will only make people want to skip the assessment altogether. Make sure each question is serving a purpose and is asked in a clear way that provides the type of information you need. If people on the board or with enough knowledge of the board are willing, have them pilot the assessment for you.
Asking, “Do you feel like a part of the board, yes or no?” doesn’t tell you anything about why the individual members do or do not feel like a part of the board. It also doesn’t tell you how they define “feeling like a part of the board.” Instead you could ask an open-ended question such as “In what ways do you feel a part of the board?”
Consider why you are asking this question. Perhaps you want to know about what areas of board work people feel engaged in. Ask about these areas specifically.
4. Engage the board in analysis
What are the results of the assessment telling you? By engaging the board in this analysis—which includes establishing findings and recommendations—you create buy-in. This increases the likelihood that the recommendations will actually be carried out and incorporated into the work of the board. And that’s the whole point, right?
You can engage the board in analysis in many ways. All the board members can review and give feedback on the findings, they can choose to sit on a task force to do the analysis, or they can be part of a facilitated process. The approach you take depends on time, the size of your board, and the expertise on the board.
Board assessments are commonly accepted board practice, but if they are done in a routine way, you miss the opportunity to gather and use important information. Incorporating these four elements of evaluation can strengthen your assessment process and keep your board moving forward.