This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.
Now that we understand the value (and challenges) of board self-assessment and we're ready commit, where do we start? Just as there is no one, universal approach to evaluating all governing bodies' performances, there are many ways to introduce assessment into our board processes.
In that spirit, I'd like to offer 10 ways to introduce formal and informal assessment into our board practice. Any one would be a productive step toward embracing the opportunity to reflect on our work, to appreciate our individual and collective strengths and identify growth needs.
(1) Make assessment part of your regular board routine. Schedule formal opportunities to stop, assess and reflect during the year - and do it. Plan to conduct, at minimum, a comprehensive annual assessment of both the board as a whole and individual members. Consider incorporating more frequent checks, perhaps semiannual or quarterly, to give yourselves opportunities to identify areas that require adjustment.
(2) Use the outcomes of your annual assessment to identify future board goals. If assessment reveals that board member confidence in their ability to fulfill community outreach responsibilities is low, set a goal to develop those skills for the next year (or whatever time frame you're using). Similarly, if board members express an interest in strengthening their donor stewardship skills, incorporate that need into the group's learning goals.
(3) Make assessment a board responsibility. The board should own this process: the decisions about what to assess, in what format, when, by whom, etc. This isn't a "The ED will nag us until we do it" process. This is a potentially rich and valuable process to build board capacity. If the board takes responsibility for evaluating its own performance, it will have a different - and deeper - meaning for members. Make assessment part of the ongoing responsibilities of the governance committee or other standing board work group. Hold that group accountable for seeing the process through.
(4) Ask the board to recommend issues/questions to be included in its assessment process(es). While there are standard topics and governance responsibilities for which all everyone should be accountable, each board also will have unique goals, concerns, and aspirations. Including them in the benchmarks by which success is measured raises those questions to a higher level. They also will add to the meaningfulness of the data shared, since they represent issues of concern to board members themselves.
(5) Pose a "How are we doing/How do we know?" question ahead of a board meeting. Ask members to bring evidence, pro or con, to support their point. Spend quality time during the meeting sharing and discussing - and committing to build from that foundation.
(6) Add an external twist to number 5. Ask them specifically to gather feedback from external sources - policy makers, donors, clients and former clients, other nonprofits, neighbors, etc. - about the agency's performance. Ask them to share what they learn in a board discussion. Use that feedback, not as a cheap opportunity to criticize the ED or staff, but to reflect on how the board can take a more active role in communicating and sharing the organization's mission and work with an expanding audience.
(7) Build your retreats around big questions. Don't cram those great spaces with giant to do items (no more "write a strategic plan" retreat agendas!). Instead, pose broad questions that build board capacity. Spend quality time focusing beyond the horizon, toward the better future that you describe in your vision. Acknowledge that's it's okay to emerge from the experience with more questions (focused on the big-picture issues of governance).
(8) Take your formal assessments online. Whether you choose a ready-made assessment tool, like Alice Korngold's fantastic Board Vector tool, or choose to create/adopt/adapt your own assessment survey, consider adopting an online format (e.g., SurveyMonkey). There are at least two benefits of doing so. First, the anonymity of an online survey encourages frank and honest answers. No one is handling my responses (noting who was writing in what ink color for comparison after we leave). Second, collection and tabulation are instantaneous. No one needs to calculate percentages. No one needs to keystroke responses to open-ended questions. No one needs to remember how to create charts. The right tool will take care of that for you, in a format that is easy to share electronically.
(9) If you board is big enough (to ensure a basic level of anonymity) - and text-savvy enough - pose a quick-poll question during a meeting. Use an instant polling tool, like PollEverywhere, to engage their brains in a different way and gather quick feedback on an issue before the board. If a computer and projector are handy, create the quick-response poll, instruct the board on how to participate (e.g., text message or web link) and project their responses live. Use those responses to spark a conversation about the results. Perhaps stating the obvious: if your board is small or you have members who are are tech averse or lack access to text technology, this won't be a great option. If our board has five members and only two or three have cell phones (or know how to text), this will be a less-than-ideal option.
(10) End every meeting with one simple question: How did we advance the mission today/tonight? It's a simple but powerful reminder of the board's purpose. They may be small steps, but board members should be able to identify multiple actions taken to move the organization ever closer to its purpose. If they cannot do so, your board likely is focused on the wrong things when it meets. There is an added benefit to instituting this step into your board routine: members come to expect it and begin to look for that evidence as they interact (and, ideally, turn a more critical eye toward meeting agendas and the ways in which they spend their time).