By Bill Pawlucy, CAE and BJ Colvin
A high functioning, strategic board requires the ability for it to be introspective and capable of self-reflecting on its overall performance. It is by no means an easy task to accomplish regardless of the board’s size or composition. Let’s consider the difficulty staff often encounter when conducting self-evaluations during annual reviews; this is compounded when trying to evaluate a large group as a whole. An evaluation tool is one of the most effective ways for a board to reflect on its impact on the organization as a whole.
Recently, working with an organization during their annual board evaluation, it was evident that there was an unspoken tension in the air before reviewing the survey results of their evaluation. Year after year, the evaluation always ended in conflict and strife, comments were personal, and there was a large discrepancy in how others were reviewed. The survey they used was 80 questions and focused intensely on individual behaviors. When reinventing this strategic tool, it was reduced to six targeted questions on the overall functionality of the board. After completing the process, there was a general feeling of positivity in the air. Everyone there felt valued, heard, and understood. Most importantly, there was great consensus on what areas the board should focus on improving over the coming year.
The new tool developed by the board focused on identifying their core expectations. It also asked simply if the board was meeting those expectations, and to identify areas for improvement. The areas that the tool focused on were:
- Is the board meeting their three legal duties of care, loyalty, and obedience?
- Is the board strategically focused?
- Does the board contribute to a positive organizational culture?
- Is the board effective in its role?
- What are the areas of growth for the board?
- What are areas of success or areas the board has grown this year?
Each question laid out the shared expectations that this board had identified. As part of that, each question shared clear examples of what the expected behavior and outcomes of the board should be. From this, the board evaluated and provided comments. The result was the board identified some key weaknesses and celebrated their successes and areas of growth.
As observed in this example, a board assessment must be strategically targeted in order to be effective. The following elements should be consider when designing an evaluation tool for an organization:
- Outcomes – What is the desired result of the evaluation? This does not refer to the ultimate scores or responses, but how does this cause the board to grow. Does the evaluation tool direct boards towards becoming more strategic or more tactical? Organizations that evaluate using tactical questions will have a more tactical board rather than a strategic board.
- Create Alignment – The evaluation should align with the expectations of the board. If there is a misalignment between expectations of the board and the evaluation tool, it will send asymmetric signals to the board. The evaluation tool needs to center around an organization’s mission, vision, and strategic plan. As a result of centering the evaluation on these core items, the board’s actions will more naturally align with fulfilling these essential compenents of the organization.
- Build Leaders – Does the evaluation tool lead to conflict year after year? If so, the tool is likely to blame. Including questions that set things up for interpersonal strife, the tool is more likely to push leaders away than cause an organization’s volunteer leaders to improve themselves.
- Drive Accountability – Ultimately, any evaluation should identify both strengths and weaknesses. A well-designed tool should create clear expectations and cause individuals to reflect on whether they contribute to the organization’s health and forward progress.
- Ownership – A board needs to feel ownership over their tool. If there is a lack of ownership in the evaluation, it will not push a board to be introspective. Engaging the board in creating the evaluation tool and reviewing the purpose and questions can drive ownership and ultimately empower them to make the most efficient use of the results. Consider examining the evaluation tool annually with the board before use to ensure understanding and relevancy.
Every organization needs a unique tool that will generate targeted outcomes. An organization will benefit signficantly from viewing the board evaluation tool as a precision instrument. Through focusing on the core areas, you will drive growth in leadership and develop a more strategically focused board. Have the board consider the outcomes of their current evaluation tool and ask if they can benefit from one that will drive momentum in the organization.
In the end, a board is only as strong as it’s ability to evaluate, reflect and strategically plan for growth. For a free board assessment tool, please follow this link and use coupon code assess2021.
Bill Pawlucy, CAE provides resources and tools for nonprofits at www.associationoptions.com.
Benjamin Colvin is a governance and research specialist at Association Options.