Whose Job Is it Anyway? How Self-Assessments Can Help Construct, Support a Solid Governing Body
Nonprofit boards of directors operate on many different levels of sophistication, from a 25-member national board that follows “Robert’s Rules of Order” to the letter at every meeting, to the five-person local board that has never heard of “Robert’s Rules of Order,” and on which the sitting members are all friends with the organization’s founder.
Some less-established nonprofits will even make the well-intentioned mistake of asking people to join the board with the promise that the recruit will “not have to do much”—perhaps just “show up at a few meetings.” The organization is aware that it needs a board to legally operate, so it pulls in anyone it can, in any way possible. On the other end of the spectrum, large boards also experience a communication gap at times because of their size and geographical locations. It is not surprising that people who join boards of directors often admit to feeling ill-prepared for their role as a part of a governing body.
From the organization’s perspective, nonprofit executives can often be heard lamenting that they feel their board is ineffective and is not “helping” in the ways it should be. The cause of this disconnect lays squarely at the nonprofit’s feet. It is the responsibility of the nonprofit organization to partner with their board to:
• Recruit according to need and ability.
• Set expectations for future members.
• Provide the tools and education necessary for members to be confident and perform their duties well.
No matter how famous, financially fortunate or passionate about the mission a member of the board is, they are still volunteers, and should be treated as such. As nonprofit professionals, we must keep in mind that they do not intrinsically owe us anything. No one wants to dedicate their volunteer time to an organization only to end up feeling that time is wasted because their talents are not being fully utilized. It is our responsibility as nonprofit professionals to prepare well, set our boards up for success, and thank them genuinely and regularly for their efforts.
Duties of Care, Loyalty and Obedience
We’ve established that volunteers often join boards without fully understanding the scope of their role. So what exactly are the duties expected of a nonprofit’s board of directors? According to BoardSource, the national organization dedicated to strengthening board leadership, they are care, loyalty and obedience. Those three things sound daunting, but easily boil down to this: Boards must be dedicated to prudent use of assets, making decisions in the best interest of the organization, and ensuring that the organization obeys applicable laws and acts ethically.
With such an important purpose to fulfill, what can we do to determine a current board’s level of comfort and competency? This is where board self-assessments come in. The name is a little misleading. It does not mean that the board members are determining for themselves what is missing and how to fix it. It means that board members are surveyed on very specific topics by a third party.
Board of Directors Self-Assessment
The questions in a self-assessment are intended to help the nonprofit and its governing body:
• Pinpoint areas in which the board is already functioning well.
• Identify areas where members need more information to be sure they are fulfilling their duties.
• Uncover any potential problem areas that require attention.
Survey topics include expectation setting, recruitment, committees, laws and regulations, fundraising, audit, program outcomes, marketing and public relations, mission clarity, and strategic planning. These are just a few examples. Questions can also be added to specifically address any problems the organization is experiencing.
It is important to administer the assessment as a blind survey, assuring anonymity. Survey respondents are more likely to give unfiltered responses if they are assured there cannot be repercussions. This is also part of the value of having a third party deliver the assessment. When possible, it’s also good to deliver an identical, but separate, survey to the nonprofit’s executive team. This can uncover significant variances in how the staff and the board each perceive functionality and effectiveness.
It is useful to have a two-pronged survey—one section focused on how the individual feels about their own personal service, and one regarding how he or she perceives the performance of the board as a whole. Surprisingly often, board members believe their own knowledge of and performance regarding governance is solid, but that their peers display a significant lack of competence.
Some of this can be attributed to the fact that, as individuals, we want to believe we are giving our all. But what these beliefs really highlight is that board members don’t communicate well or often with each other, may not know the strengths others bring to the proverbial table, and do not have knowledge of others’ activities and levels of participation. (Survey responses often show that board members do not know which members sit on which committees, and often think other board members are not on any committees—even though committee participation is generally a requirement set forth in bylaws.)
When administering this type of assessment, I generally give the board and nonprofit executives the raw answers in graphs and percentages. Colored pie charts are a stark way to see commonalities and disparities—they drive home just how much variance exists between each participant’s perception of reality.
These survey questions are among my favorites, because they tend to illustrate enormous knowledge gaps (when we know where gaps exist, we know where to focus our efforts to improve):
1. The board has members with expertise in the following areas. Check all that apply:
☐ Financial Stewardship
☐ Legal Compliance
☐ Risk Management
☐ Organizational Impact in the Community and/or With Clients
☐ Executive Oversight
☐ Human Resources
☐ I Don’t Know
Answers to this question usually turn out to be pretty far off the mark. For example, some small nonprofits’ members will answer that they have someone proficient in all areas, when in reality, they may have one or two categories covered. Members of large, national nonprofit boards sometimes believe there is a shortfall in every category, when in fact, most categories are accounted for.
For some organizations, what causes many members to answer “I don’t know” is simply that they have never seen a board of directors contact list that includes affiliations. Such a roster is something every nonprofit should have.
After board self-assessments are administered and the responses are shared, it is useful to have an education and strategy session with the board to discuss the areas that raised questions. It is then—when members look at the areas of expertise and begin to discuss—that it may come out that, before Gloria retired, she was a risk manager for an oil company. Or that Jim used to sit on a United Way Community Investment Committee, so he has a solid understanding of measuring organizational impact. Think of how much easier committee creation would be with this knowledge in hand.
2. Newly elected board members have had expectations set appropriately and receive adequate orientation to their role and what is expected of them.
☐ Strongly Agree
☐ Strongly Disagree
☐ I Don’t Know
This can lead to an extensive evaluation of board recruitment processes and materials, such as job descriptions and board expectations.
3. Board members have an elevator pitch and/or have been trained in presenting about the organization and its mission.
☐ Strongly Agree
☐ Strongly Disagree
☐ I Don’t Know
Discussion that ensues often uncovers that each member has their own way of describing the organization and its work, but that he or she is unaware of the correct or preferred way to present mission and programs.
4. Which of the following policies and procedures does the organization have? Select all that apply:
☐ Gift Acceptance Policy
☐ Social Media Policy
☐ Development Plan
☐ Strategic Plan
☐ HIPPA Compliance (or another industry-specific regulation)
☐ Personnel/Human Resources Policies (such as non-discrimination)
☐ Board Service Agreement
☐ Whistleblower Policy
☐ Board Member Conflict of Interest
Policy and Confidentiality Policy
☐ Document Retention Policy
☐ Emergency/Disaster Plan (that includes a public relations component)
☐ Brand Standards
☐ Board and CEO Succession Procedures
This last question generally sparks the mother of all conversations at a strategy and planning meeting. Why? Because many nonprofits do not have some of the items at all, some of them are out of date, or some have never been seen by a current board member and have not been reapproved since 1975. Remember, boards are responsible for ensuring the organization adheres to all applicable laws.
The capabilities of the nonprofit board of directors are crucial to the success of the organization. Unless the organization is a start-up nonprofit that is completely volunteer-run, it is our responsibility as nonprofit professionals to arm our governing bodies with the tools and information they need to govern efficiently, effectively and fairly.
A board of directors self-assessment is one evaluation tool that can assist in determining where the organization and its board performs well and what areas need attention. And let’s face it, a little self-evaluation and reflection is never a bad thing—for yourself or for your nonprofit.
Smooth Sailing: Board Resources for Nonprofit
Assembling and working with a board of directors can be one of the most challenging tasks for nonprofit leaders. But it’s also one of the most important. Your board is the rudder steering the nonprofit ship—if it’s not strong, your organization could end up dashed on the rocks.
Ominous boating metaphors aside, the good news is there are lots of resources to help nonprofits build, manage and strengthen their boards. Google will turn up a ton of useful results, but here are a few of the best:
BoardSource has plenty of free resources on its site, including a whole bunch of infographics and templates available for download. But the real value of BoardSource—itself a nonprofit—is its membership program. The organization offers endless studies, workbooks and research at a nominal fee for members, and provides consulting services, board support programs, board recruiting and development, and more.
One of our favorite nonprofit websites, Blue Avocado is the bi-monthly newsletter of American Nonprofits, but functions more like a magazine. The writing is fun and fearless, with contributions from writers from all over the sector. It’s also home of Board Café, the influential column specifically for and about boards that was operated by CompassPoint from 1997 to 2008 before moving to Blue
Avocado. The robust Board Café archives are accessible from the Blue Avocado site, along with new content updated regularly. Go get lost in it.
National Council of Nonprofits
An invaluable resource on a number of topics—from ethics and accountability to human resources—National Council of Nonprofits also has an extensive collection of articles on boards and governance. These range from 101-level info on board roles and responsibilities to higher-level, tactical advice on financial literacy, dissolving a nonprofit corporation and more. National Council of Nonprofits stays on top of current issues and issues guidance accordingly, so its website should be a regular stop for nonprofit leaders.
The Bridgespan Group
Another nonprofit aimed at helping other nonprofits perform better, The Bridgespan Group provides a free, searchable “Knowledge Library” with articles on board and governance best
practices. For a fee, the organization also offers leadership development and other services to nonprofits looking for outside counsel.
You didn’t think we’d leave this one out, did you?
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.