Some Tips for a Successful Board Self-Examination
There comes a time (or times) when every person or group of people need to take stock and do a little self-examining. This is no less true when it comes to nonprofit boards. One way boards can do this is with a self-assessment.
Marla Bobowick, vice president of products for BoardSource, a company that helps strengthen nonprofit boards through consulting, publications and other resources, recently took some time to speak with FS about how and why boards should examine their performance through self-assessment.
“Organizations change and evolve, and the boards need to evolve with them. But when you think about how hard it is for an individual to change, extrapolate that and then you have 17 individuals — the average sized board — who are not closely involved in the day to day of the organization. Think how hard it is to get that to start to change,” Bobowick says. “So the self-assessment process — just even that activity — helps speed that process up and gives you a chance to say ‘Here’s our goal, let’s do it together.’”
Bobowick says, first off, board self-assessments should not be initiated in times of crisis or in a new CEO’s first week on the job. Common times to do self-assessments are before going into strategic-planning mode or prior to a feasibility study.
It’s important that the board members agree to do the self-assessment. The members should give the organization formal approval that they’re doing a self-assessment, give an idea of the time frame and who’s going to facilitate it.
“I’ve seen them facilitated by staff, and it almost always fails because the staff is busy trying to push [the board] in a certain direction. It’s not intentional and it’s not manipulative; it’s just that they see things from a very different perspective,” Bobowick says.
She recommends turning to an outside, objective person like a consultant or a third party from the community. “Somebody that can play sort of a facilitator role and not take any of it personally, and also not have a vested interest in the outcome,” she adds.
Information should be gathered from all board members, whether through an online or print survey tool or face-to-face interviews.
“When we think about a board self-assessment, it is just that, a board self-assessment. It’s not the staff evaluating the board. It’s the board evaluating itself,” Bobowick says.
Things that the survey should look at are the board’s basic roles and responsibilities: Does it carry out its fiduciary oversight functions well? Does it engage in fundraising? Has it set direction? Does it monitor performance? Does it manage its own composition by evaluating board members when their term limits come up and recruiting new board members?
The facilitator then should aggregate the data from the survey and bring it back to the board in its full form, not as a summary of the data.
“Not just a summary of ‘you said you were good at X and not Y’ but use their words, because, for my money, a board self-assessment is the best way to help a board start to engage in a change process, an improvement process, a ‘let’s do things differently, better, smarter, faster, whatever’ and it has to come from them,” Bobowick says. “It can’t come from an outside person, the chief executive, a consultant saying ‘you should do this.’”
Often the results come back in three different categories: strengths and weaknesses, disparities of opinion, and what some people know that others don’t know.
“What you’ll often see is that the executive committee knows a lot more than the rest of the board about certain things or feels very differently about something than the full board,” she says.
Create time to talk about the results in a facilitated conversation where the board can analyze what it learned about itself. What should come out of this conversation is an action plan, where the board itemizes the areas it needs to work on, specifying who’s going to do what, when and how, what they need to do it, and laying out a time line for when they will take on each area. Bobowick says boards should keep the list of things to work on manageable, focusing on tackling big issues.
“I always think of a self-assessment as sort of an investment in the board so that board members become more invested in the organization, because it ends up opening up conversations about what motivated them to join the board, why they care about the cause -- all the things that often get lost in board meetings when you get caught up in reports and progress or strategy discussions where you sometimes lose sight of why do we care, what are we really accomplishing here,” she says. “So you often get a lot of renewed interest, and you also get the people that say, ‘Hey, I didn’t sign up to do this work. I didn’t realize this is what it meant. I didn’t realize it was so serious. I think it’s time for me to step off the board.’ So it also can be helpful to clean house a little bit.”
Marla Bobowick can be reached via www.boardsource.org