Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 ways to assess board performance

Note: The original version of this post, published in September 2012, seems to have found its own special spam following. While the comments are gone by the time I receive an alert, they are annoying nonetheless. I'm reposting today, in an effort to break that chain.  Hopefully, the advice offered will be valuable to readers who may have missed the original.

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).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

After the antecedents: More of Will Brown's nonprofit board engagement model

Once we've successfully addressed the antecedents to board member engagement, then what?

I hadn't anticipated writing a follow-up to last week's post on Will Brown's research on board member participation in discussion and decision making. But in my own reflection, and after interacting here and elsewhere with readers interested in learning more about his work, the need for "the rest of the story" became clear.

The strong foundation laid by the antecedents that Brown's research identified - perceived ability, task ownership, values congruence, and trust and safety - is a critical first step. But it's just that: a first step. What unfolds once members are appropriately connected to the work shapes the quality of participation and, in the end, the quality of decisions made.

(Will outlined the rest of the model in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management webinar highlighting his work, and in a chapter of the book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches. The description that follows draws from both sources.)

In addition to the antecedents, Brown research identified two mediators that impact boardroom discussion and decision making processes: situational constraints and group dynamics. The former includes elements that will be more familiar to students of nonprofit governance and, undoubtedly, anyone who's explored recent practitioner-focused literature. The latter addresses factors that are less frequently studied (or acknowledged) but that have at least equal power in determining the direction of what happens on the way to a decision.

Situational constraints

Will shared five "situational constraints" that emerged in his research:

  • Group size
  • Meeting management
  • Information flow
  • Framing the conversation and 
  • Conflict management

How boards structure the work in the first place - how we set up situations for engagement - matters greatly. If board members don't have what they need to engage, he told webinar participants, they simply won't. Having the right number (neither too small not too large) of board members and having access to the right set of information in a timely manner are critical to quality deliberation and decision making.

The way in which board leaders frame the conversation up front sets the stage for discussions that invite full board member participation. Skillful facilitation is equally essential. Brown puts it this way in his chapter: "Careful facilitation is critical to move the conversation forward, while allowing for appropriate conflict."

Note that he doesn't call for no conflict. Rather, what his research uncovered was the need for leadership with the capacity and willingness to balance member participation, managing those who would dominate while encouraging quieter members to step up, speak out, and take equal ownership in what emerges from the interaction.

Board leaders' lack of success in managing these situational constraints "results in disengagement and frustration." That is why we must attend to the structural components of governance.

Group dynamics

"Does the board actually function as a group?" Will posed that bottom-line question to webinar participants. We can bring them to the table, he said, but if we don't deal with the interpersonal stuff that comes with groups of people, we'll fail.

Brown highlighted five group dynamics elements identified in his research:

  • Dominant norms
  • Patterns of behavior
  • Social and emotional context
  • Group cohesion
  • Fault lines and sub-groups

Group norms can be functional or not. "Group norms that support critical decision-making, build appropriate cohesion, and minimize sub-groups are likely to encourage engagement and participation," he told the webinar audience.

Cohesion is a good thing - unless it becomes the end in itself, leading to group think and valuing getting along over asking necessary tough questions. Will found that "norms regarding critical thought improved decision quality when compared to norms of consensus." On the flip side of that is a damaged environment where factions emerge between board members and conflicting interests threaten to shut down the process completely.

What are the norms that drive your board's behavior? Do they encourage/expect members to speak up, especially when doing so runs counter to the prevailing sentiment? Do they encourage collegiality while welcoming dissent or the occasionally uncomfortable stretch? Do they demand thoughtful, critical decision making?

No, we cannot ignore the interpersonal factors that inevitably feed or challenge the board's capacity to work and to focus on its ultimate purpose.

Will's research: My takeaways

Moderating Will's webinar wasn't my first encounter with his research. While I still seem to catch something new with each encounter, I can offer a decent summary of what I consider to be the most salient aspects of the work for me today.

The big picture is, well, the big picture. This work offers a broader perspective of what happens in the nonprofit boardroom and the factors that shape discussion and decision making processes. That, my friends, is noteworthy. There is obvious value in focusing attention on specific components of governance and deepening our collective understanding of specific aspects of board work. But equally important is the step back that this research takes, offering a more holistic view of boardroom deliberation processes and all that feeds or constrains it.

I chose to focus on the antecedents last time, because I truly believe that it's the most "newsworthy" isolated component of the larger research. So often our focus is on roles and responsibilities and activities once they're already in the boardroom. We needed this chance to look at what must happen before they get there. We must understand what they need, from whom, to have a reasonable chance for success. The four antecedents to engagement that emerged from this research provide that necessary foundation.

The two mediators are keys to understanding the process as a whole. Structural elements - and those factors that constrain them - matter. Obviously. But they are not enough by themselves. As this larger research effort made crystal clear, participation is a distinctly human process. We need to provide structures that not only aren't barriers to engagement but that facilitate engagement.

And the group dynamics element, whew. That has always felt like a big piece of the puzzle, but I have a new-found respect for its ultimate importance after this year's immersion in group process literature. Board members aren't "seats." They are human beings, bring human motivations, needs and issue with them into the room. How those human factors play out absolutely impacts not only the quality of our interactions, but the quality of our discussions and the decisions that emerge from them. Brown's research offers insight into the "how" as well as confirmation that that is true.

The practical question is this: What do we do with the gift that is Will Brown's research? How will we use what it offers us to change our board decision making practices?