Evaluating Board Performance
Board evaluations and assessments are popular topics online. That’s great, because evaluating board performance is a best practice for strong, productive boards. Unfortunately, while an internet search turns up lots of results, it can still be hard to find what you need. The goal of this post is to consolidate information and resources on the topic.
The Case for Evaluating Board Performance
Conducting periodic board performance evaluations will improve your board’s ability to help the organization deliver on its mission. BoardSource does a great job of summarizing the benefits here. This will help you make the case to your own board of directors.
Who Manages the Process
The same BoardSource article cited above suggests that the process be led by a governance committee. I agree.
However, if you don’t have one, there are several alternative approaches. Some boards appoint a task force to conduct the process. Some hire an outside consultant, which has the added advantage of guaranteeing anonymity to participants. Other boards have a staff member who manages the process.
While boards occasionally have their executive committee manage the process, this poses a problem. Some respondents may hesitate to provide negative feedback directly to the group responsible for board leadership. (See my comments on trust, below.)
When to Conduct Evaluations
I have worked on boards that evaluate their performance annually, board that evaluate performance every two to three years, boards that evaluate performance only in conjunction with strategic planning, and boards that never evaluate their performance. While all boards should evaluate their performance periodically, the frequency will depend on size, sophistication, leadership, and roles.
Most boards for large and sophisticated organizations evaluate their performance annually, just as corporate boards do. Deloitte’s Performance Evaluations of Boards and Directors outlines the frequency and approach corporate entities take on page 5.
However, the majority of non-profit boards with or without paid staff members should consider evaluating board performance every two to three years, in conjunction with strategic planning, or when the board has a leadership change, as noted in this BoardSource article.
How to Conduct Board Evaluations
There are two basic types of board evaluations.
- Board performance evaluations look at the overall performance of the board as a whole.
- Board director evaluations ask board members to evaluate their own performance relative to expectations.
Common methodologies for both types of assessments include quantitative tools (like a survey), qualitative tools (like interviews), or both to gather data. Regardless of which tool you choose, make sure the questions are relevant and the results will be used. If your board cannot or will not take action on negative feedback received on a particular question, it should be eliminated from the process.
Board Performance Evaluations
Most board performance evaluations include some form of questionnaire administered on paper or electronically. The results are then summarized, with responses to open-ended questions included, and distributed at a board meeting. Any comments that would identify an individual respondent are redacted to protect anonymity.
In general, purely quantitative (numerical) surveys are accompanied by individual interviews to allow respondents to elaborate and recommend improvements. A simple rating often does not give the board sufficient information to recommend an improvement.
Here are some sample board performance evaluation forms and approaches for your reference:
For boards of larger organizations with paid staff and a policy focus, this McKinsey & Company Board Self-Assessment Tool is a good model.
For boards with paid staff, this evaluation tool from the New Hampshire Center for Non-Profits is a great model. It is long, but the questions are strong. They will administer it for you for a small fee, you can load it into SurveyMonkey or a similar survey tool and administer it yourself, or you can hire someone like me to do this for you.
If your board governs an organization without paid staff, or fills operational roles in addition to policy roles, your evaluation form will be different. In this case, you should create a customized approach that incorporates the hands-on responsibilities shared by all members of the board. Unfortunately, there aren’t many solid samples available for free online. However, the ICF Early Education Institute Board of Directors Evaluation and Checklist provides a few examples of operationally-oriented customization, like including questions about attending parent meetings.
Some all-volunteer nonprofits whose board members serve as the organization’s core staff include position-specific questions in their evaluation process. For example, a Parent Teacher Association might ask for feedback on the performance of an event committee.
Another tool for gathering feedback is the exit interview. These may be conducted in conjunction with an annual board evaluation process or separately. The New Hampshire Center for Non-Profits has a great overview of Exit Interviews for Outgoing Board Members, with suggested questions. I am also a fan of the Start/Stop/Continue approach. This interview process asks what the board should:
- Start doing to make the board more effective
- Stop doing to improve performance
- Continue to do because it works
Board Director Evaluations
While some argue that individual director-level evaluations are less productive, I disagree. In my experience, setting clear expectations and then holding board members accountable for meeting them improves the likelihood board members will take those obligations seriously and helps boards identify barriers to success.
The key is to make sure that each board member has a clear job description so that they understand overall expectations. After all, no one appreciates a negative review on a responsibility they were unaware was theirs.
Many boards set annual goals for individual board members in addition to their regular, on-going responsibilities. For example, board members might have specific goals relative to the number of speaking engagements they have, the number of events they will attend on the organization’s behalf, or the number of times they accompany a development team member on visits to major donors. Again, these expectations must be both measurable and clear.
Here are some sample board director evaluation forms and approaches for your reference:
The National Council of Non-Profit’s Individual Board Member Self-Evaluation is designed to be conducted independently. By contrast, this Board Self-Evaluation Questionnaire from Dalhousie University’s Non-Profit Sector Leadership Program incorporates the board director evaluation into the broader assessment process.
As with Board Performance Evaluations, quantitative assessment tools should be accompanied by interviews in order to gather greater insight. Alternatively, incorporate open-ended questions into the evaluation form, as the Marshall School Board Self-Evaluation Form does in this survey.
Some boards provide more routine feedback on progress against goals to directors. For example, I served on one board where board members set individual goals in specific categories for the year, and progress of each board member was published at each board meeting. While I’m sure there were board members who didn’t appreciate the visibility when they weren’t meeting their objectives, I know from personal experience that the peer pressure of that visibility prompts action!
Some boards evaluate board members at the executive committee level, rather than having them do self-evaluations. For example, see Joan Garry’s blog post regarding board assessment tools. Her Big BAT tool is an interesting approach. Personally, I do not like closed-door board member evaluations unless they are accompanied by a self-evaluation process. However, when used in tandem, they prompt valuable discussion about the types of training, engagement or board recruitment should happen.
Finally, the fourth page of this article by Holly Sidley, called Rethinking Board Evaluation, has some thoughtful suggestions regarding individual board member evaluation processes. Her observations about the use of facilitated board discussions were particularly insightful.
Ensuring Success When Evaluating Board Performance
As I combed through articles in preparation for this post, and as I reflect on my own experience with board evaluation processes, there are several important factors that impact the success of the process:
It is critical that participants feel they can be honest in their feedback. If they believe they will suffer consequences as a result of their honesty, they will choose not to comment. To prevent trust issues, guarantee anonymity by having an external consultant or trusted staff person manage the process.
If board members don’t see the value in the process, they may choose not to participate. Unfortunately, boards are small enough populations that any one individual’s response could significantly change the outcome. Explain the value, the process, and how the information will be used in advance.
I have served on boards with inexperienced board members whose first glimpse of the expectations of the director role are in the evaluation process. Setting expectations at the beginning of a board member’s service is critical. To do so, provide every board members with a job description that clearly outlines performance expectations. In addition, conduct a thorough orientation, or on-boarding, program for new board members that covers board roles and responsibilities.
I have served on boards that regularly and extensively evaluated the board’s performance, but took little or no action on the outcomes. While it was gratifying to know that board members generally enjoyed their experience, the process felt like a waste of time when no actionable recommendations surfaced from the time invested. To prevent this issue, think carefully about the questions you are asking, the possible responses, and how the board could make changes based on the information you gather. If you can’t figure out the answers to these questions, you may need follow up questions or clarifying language to make sure the information you gather will be useful.
Finally, the board evaluation process fails if never happens. While it’s okay to postpone the process while dealing with more pressing issues such as CEO selection or a financial crisis, permanent deferral can cause the board to overlook importance governance activities.
What did I miss?
Got a question about non-profit board evaluations? Or have advice to share? Please comment on my blog!
Are you willing to share a sample evaluation process or form? Or do you have an idea for an article? If so, reach out to me via email.
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