Sunday, September 16, 2012

Self-assessment: The board experience

We may know - because books, consultants and bloggers tell us - that self-assessment is an essential part of board development and accountability. But what do real boards do, or not do, and why?

I posed five questions to readers in my last post, to gain a better sense of the challenges and motivations that impact whether or not nonprofit boards take the time to evaluate their performance. Today, I share highlights from that quick poll, in the spirit of sparking a discussion about what others have shared, what you have experienced, and how we might encourage our boards to make the time to reflect and assess as an ongoing governance priority.

I'll open with the usual disclaimer about what we can and can't do with the data I'm about to share. This is a non-random sample of readers of this blog. We can't generalize results as representative of the larger pool of nonprofit boards. What we can do, as we have done with results of other polls conducted here, is use these results as a starting point for a conversation.

The first question was, "Does your board regularly engage in self-assessment?" I wasn't surprised to find that 65 percent of respondents said no.

I asked the 35 percent who said their boards do include self-assessment in their routine about the primary benefits of that effort. The following chart shows their responses. (Note: Poll takers could choose multiple options.)

I included an option for "other" responses, knowing the six categories I posed couldn't cover the full range of possible benefits. One reader offered an additional reason for engaging in self-assessment, one that may resonate with others: "Help us shift from focus on management details to broad policy questions and discussions."

I wanted to better understand the factors that boards experience as obstacles to engaging in self-assessment. The following chart shows reader responses. Again, multiple answers were possible.

I offered the same option to list additional factors beyond those I posed. One response in particular caught my eye, particularly in light of the findings of research I shared earlier this summer. That response: "E.D. doesn't encourage/value the process." (The gatekeeper role of the board's leadership partner can be a powerful - and a negative - one.)

What continues to be clear, at least according to these responses, is that the real work is two-fold (and completely manageable): ongoing education about the value of self-assessment and expanding the pool of adoptable or adaptable tools to make it easier to do once they make the commitment.

In one of two open-ended questions, I asked respondents to envision what might be uncovered in a board self-assessment. Eighty-five percent offered real or potential outcomes of such a process. This sampling of their responses gives you a sense of the themes that emerged:

  • "Disconnects between how we spend time/resources and what our mission actually is"
  • "Where we need to strengthen and better ways to communicate with individual board members based on their feedback"
  • "Differing interpretations of our mission, expectations of board members/clarifying the board role"
  • "Differences/similarities in vision for the organization"
  • "Need for more board involvement in board leadership and fundraising"
  • "The gap between what the board is doing and what it ought to be doing"
  • "1) Need for greater clarity re the role of this particular board in taking the organization forward (as opposed to generic role of the board), 2) Better understand who we need to recruit to strengthen the board"
  • "In our experience, self-assessment uncovers new ideas that support the mission...and sometimes helps board members see some opportunities for themselves to participate in a more effective manner"

Note the positive and productive tone of the last bullet point - and wording that suggests it is an actual outcome for a board that has taken this evaluation step. It's a good reminder, from someone with experience, that self-assessment can uncover more than our deep failures.

In the second open-ended question, I asked what self-assessment might accomplish for participants' boards. Following is a sampling of responses:

  • "Better key us into our proper roles as policy makers rather than detail managers"
  • "Recommitment"
  • "An assessment like this helps to uncover what board members truly want to work on and why"
  • "Stronger relationships and therefore stronger board, unify behind a SHARED mission, weed out board members that realize they aren't on the same boat as everyone else"
  • "Set the direction for how to become more efficient"
  • "Better long-range planning to meet identified goals"
  • "Encourage some board members to become more engaged, thereby strengthening the board as a whole"
  • "Getting everyone on the same page!!"
  • "We hope that an annual reflection on accomplishment (both team and for individual board members) will not only help define the next steps forward in the board mission, but also encourage and re-invigorate board members for higher levels of achievement."
  • "Re-energize, refocus, board service more rewarding, better use of time, more effective meetings, improved relationships with staff and stakeholders, renewed vision"
  • "1) Clarify the role and work of this board in taking this organization forward, 2) help us understand what to expect of ourselves as board members, 3) help us understand whom we need to recruit - with regard to experience, expertise, diversity, networks, etc."

What strikes me about the list - especially within the context of what we learned in the very first question (that two-thirds of respondents' boards do not evaluate their work) - is that it is overwhelmingly positive. The fact it's positive isn't necessarily newsworthy; the question certainly invited such a response. Rather, 80 percent of participants - those who do and do not already conduct board evaluation - envisioned these and similarly productive outcomes of board self-assessment. At least amongst this tiny sliver of the board member population, the potential value of engaging in this work exists.

What are our takeaways from these results? What might we do to increase the percentage of boards that take that first step and try some form of self-assessment? My next post will offer some ideas, but I'd enjoy hearing from readers on this.

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