Understanding Evaluation: A Guide for the Nonprofit Board of Directors

Working with nonprofit organizations that are just starting—or ramping up—their evaluation process is one of the best parts of this job. A little evaluation goes a long way for these organizations. People are excited to get started and see the results.

When 12 people sit around a boardroom table, they bring 12 slightly different ideas about what evaluation means. At best, confusion about the board’s role in supporting and using evaluation can  waste time and energy. At worst, it can limit an evaluation’s benefits.

In this first of three articles, we’ll explore the different roles a board of directors plays in different types of evaluation. In future posts, we discuss the nonprofit board’s role in supporting and using the outcomes of program evaluation.

What is evaluation?

Evaluation is “a systematic and intentional process of gathering and analyzing data to inform learning, decision-making, and action” (source). Every evaluation follows four basic steps:

  1. Question: Identify the questions you want to answer.
  2. Investigate: Collect information to answer your questions.
  3. Reflect: Discuss and analyze the information.
  4. Improve: Make changes or decisions based on your findings.

What role does a board of directors play in evaluation?

A nonprofit board’s responsibilities in an evaluation process depend on the purpose of the evaluation. The table below details the board’s role in four common kinds of evaluation, showing the stages in which the board takes the lead, the staff take the lead, and at which times the board and staff have a shared role.






Evaluating the Executive Director’s performance Board Role Board Role Board Role Board Role
Evaluating the board’s performance Board Role Board Role Board Role Board Role
Evaluating the organization’s performance Shared Role Staff Role Shared Role Shared Role
Evaluating programs Staff Role* Staff Role* Staff Role* Staff Role*


Evaluating the Executive Director’s Performance

A nonprofit board is responsible for all aspects of the executive director’s performance evaluation. The board defines the questions, conducts the evaluation, considers the results, and makes decisions. No staff is involved.

Evaluating the Board’s Performance

The board is also responsible for evaluating its own performance. Usually, this takes the form of an annual self-assessment. Boards may conduct the evaluation on their own or bring in a specialist to help. The executive director may participate but does not usually lead the evaluation.

Evaluating the Organization’s Performance

It is the continuous work of the board to ensure that the organization performs effectively. The board is not alone in this work: it entrusts their executive director with the management of the organization’s performance and accurate reporting of that performance. On an ongoing basis, boards request and review dashboards or other reports that summarize financial performance, beneficiary outcomes, and other impacts. Boards may also request or see the results of discreet organizational evaluation activities such as market analyses, needs assessments, or summative evaluations. The board and staff should work together to identify key questions or outcomes that will inform decisions. The staff then collects and prepares the information for the board, and the board and staff discuss and analyze the results and make decisions together.

Program Evaluation

Program evaluation is a gray area for a nonprofit board: a program’s effectiveness certainly contributes to an organization’s performance. But many boards make it a point to stay out of programming, viewing it as a staff responsibility. Program evaluation is most beneficial to an organization when staff defines and ask the questions, collect information, reflect on the results, and decide on next steps. How, then, should boards engage with program evaluation? We believe that with some guidance, program evaluation can be an important tool for nonprofit boards. Read the next article in this series to learn how.

Board discussion questions

Ask these questions to help your board better understand evaluation and its relationship to it:

  1. What does evaluation mean to each of us?
  2. Why is evaluation important for the organization?
  3. Where would we like to see evaluation? For what purpose would we use it?
  4. Where does our board already play a role in evaluation (either formal or informal)?
  5. Where should we increase our role? Are there places we should decrease or change our role?


In the next article, we look at how a board of directors can use program evaluation (and offer tips to staff, as well). The final article provides context and guidance to nonprofit board of directors seeking to support program evaluation in their organization.

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