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Cynder Sinclair: How to Conduct Effective Board Assessment for Your Nonprofit

Some nonprofit executives are unsure how to go about evaluating their board. In fact, many feel downright uncomfortable about the idea.

Executives fear it might seem a little arrogant and assuming for them to initiate an assessment of the board. After all, executive directors and CEOs report to the board of directors. But it is essential to perform this critical measurement every year.

An evaluation can be an opportunity to engage board members

Use the annual evaluation to engage your board members in examining the board’s culture, its ways of work and to introduce new intentional practices that will allow the board to move from effective to high performing.

The focus of the assessment is the board's performance in carrying out its responsibilities. It is designed to serve as a development tool to assist the board in identifying ways to strengthen its performance.

A good board assessment process can be very constructive in building a strong board team, improving overall performance and inspiring a board’s commitment to continuous improvement.

However, a board assessment used as a compliance check or a report card, rather than a developmental tool, can have the unintended consequence of turning off and/or frustrating a board.

A well-structured an assessment can provide the board with an opportunity to:

» Reflect on their individual and collective responsibilities.

» Build trust, respect and open communication.

» Learn to work together as an effective team.

» Clarify staff/board roles and expectations.

» Identify strengths and areas that need attention.

» Increase board effectiveness.

There are lots of good reasons to conduct a board assessment.

Conducting a board assessment is one of the most important tools a board can use to strengthen its performance.

A good board assessment process provides the board with an opportunity to reflect on its contributions to the organization’s success, consider how the board is functioning, pinpoint issues, and identify a plan of action.

According to Board Source’s 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index, boards that have performed a self-assessment are rated as more effective by their CEOs than those who have not (66 percent vs. 42 percent).

A board assessment is a nonprofit sector practice that sends a message to the community that the board takes its responsibilities seriously.

Timing can be important when conducting your evaluation

An evaluation of the board’s collective performance can be particularly useful when:

» There is confusion over roles and responsibilities;

» The nonprofit begins or completes a strategic planning process;

» The nonprofit is undergoing changes in leadership at the senior staff or board levels;

» There is a sense of complacency or a lack of engagement by the board;

» Before preparing for a major fundraising campaign, or after a major crisis;

» You want to instill a culture of continuous improvement and support the board’s efforts to be high-performing.

How to conduct a board assessment

» Secure agreement from the board to participate in the board assessment.

» Administer the assessment using a confidential, online assessment tool like Survey Monkey.

» Board members simply click on their chosen response and answer a series of questions regarding governance responsibilities (including an opportunity for comments) in each section.

» The survey should be able to be completed in less than 30 minutes by board members.

» The results are compiled by administration or an outside consultant and

» Arrange a time when the board can review the results of the assessment and identify ways in which the board can strengthen its performance.

Allot sufficient time for the assessment results meeting

It is critical the board members have time to discuss all key issues that emerge from the assessment and to develop an action plan.

The board should be able to commit a sufficient amount of time to this dialogue and the development of an action plan as a result of the assessment.

Ideally, three to four are needed for the board to genuinely address substantive issues and develop strategies for future implementation.

Insights gained from the board’s discussion of the assessment should be used to create a board education and development plan.

Choose your survey questions wisely

Deciding which questions to ask on the assessment tool can be confusing. It is important to have a clear strategy for these questions.

For example, group questions around some of the following topic areas: Basic Board Essentials, Board Function, Board Compliance, Board Governance, and Board Leadership.

Be sure to include open ended questions such as: What are our board’s greatest strengths? How can the board enhance its performance? What additional topics should be on the board’s agenda?

To find some formats for your board evaluation, visit Board Source or Joan Garry’s Board Assessment Tool, or Blue Avocado.

There are also several local consultants who can help you design, conduct, and evaluate your board assessment. You can find these consultants on the Nonprofit Resource Network’s Consultant Directory.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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