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Board members, how are you doing?

by Judy Chambers

Wait – don’t you mean how is our organization doing, or how the folks we serve are doing, or how our staff is doing? Nope. I mean you, the board of directors. You’ve been meeting virtually, dealing with unanticipated challenges to your organization, worrying about revenues, worrying about viability, and probably feeling more reactive than proactive. All of which is understandable given current conditions. But even during a pandemic, good governance is your primary responsibility. So ask yourself: how well is your board doing in guiding the organization?

This may seem like a strange time for your board to evaluate itself. But spending a little time identifying and addressing areas of improvement will enhance your board’s ability to govern effectively and position you to guide your organization into the next phase of recovery. Now more than ever, your board needs to work together.

It’s not hard to conduct a board evaluation. You can do it yourselves or bring in a facilitator if your board would be more comfortable with an outside agent. The first step is to develop a process for the evaluation. Next, obtain board buy-in to the process, not just one time but as a regular board function. Most boards conduct evaluations annually or every other year. Now you’re ready to conduct the evaluation. After that comes the last step, which is also the most important – sitting down together as a board, discussing the results, and developing action steps to address any concerns that arise. It is in this last step that an outside facilitator can be most helpful by allowing all board members to participate in the discussion without requiring any one of them to lead it.

There are many board assessment tools available, or you can develop one yourself. I suggest using an online survey that board members may complete anonymously because some of the topics will probe into areas which can be uncomfortable. You probably won’t get an honest answer to a question such as “Have you considered resigning from this board?” unless the respondent is sure he is answering anonymously.

Most of the questions should be easy to answer. Ask them in the form of a statement to which members can respond using a scale such as “agree, no opinion, disagree”. If you want to include open-ended questions, use them at the end of the survey. A good way to make sure the evaluation questions are useful is to think about how you will use the information you receive. For instance, will knowing how long someone has served on the board help you determine the board’s effectiveness? Probably not, and it also might cause someone to question just how much a respondent’s anonymity is protected.

Another good practice is to have a few people test the survey by taking it themselves – preferably people who are not related in any way to the organization. Ask your “testers” to let you know if any of the questions are confusing, leading, or difficult to answer. If you’re testing your survey online, make sure you delete the test answers.

Here are some topics to consider in building your evaluation tool.

  • Board dynamics – Do board members believe they are being heard? Are they comfortable speaking up? Are differences of opinion welcomed, respected and explored? Is there tension between members at board meetings? When the meeting is over, do members feel that conflicts have been addressed?

  • Decision-making – Do board members believe they are getting all of the information they need? Does the board deliberate before reaching decisions, or does it rubber-stamp suggested actions? Is sufficient time allowed for all board members to weigh in before making the decision? Does the board use the strategic plan as a tool in making decisions?

  • Participation – Do board members feel involved in the organization? Is the organization’s expectation for involvement clear and reasonable, such as for fundraising and special events? Do board members feel that every member pulls his weight?

  • Meetings – Do board members feel that every member is engaged and participating? Does conversation drift away from the agenda? Are there inside jokes or references that not everyone understands? Are there side conversations during meetings?

  • Committees – If your organization uses committees, do board members understand their committee responsibilities? Do other committee members share the load? Does the board usually accept the committee’s recommendations?

  • Board recruitment and orientation – Did board members feel welcomed when they joined the organization? Did they get sufficient information and orientation to understand the organization and their responsibilities?

  • Culture – Are board members aware of the organization’s core values? Does the board embrace them? Is there respect for staff, clients, and volunteers? Do board members feel valued?

  • Commitment – How much do members feel committed to the board? Do they believe there is a good level of commitment from their fellow board members? Have board members considered resigning? If they are not board leaders, have they considered stepping into leadership positions?

  • Viability – How confident are board members that the organization will survive? That it will thrive?

  • Other concerns – At the end of the survey, provide an opportunity for additional comments. Ask board members about other concerns, opportunities, and suggestions.

Once your evaluation tool is ready to go, agree on a brief period of time for board members to complete it. A few weeks should be plenty of time for each board member to respond. Ideally, the results should be presented and discussed at the very next board meeting or at a board retreat. The evaluation tool will likely raise some concerns, and it’s important to address them before those concerns fester into grudges.

The person responsible for collecting the evaluation responses should present the results to the board in a way that makes it easy to understand and helps guide the discussion: tables, graphs, or bulleted lists. Your board may wish to see the results before the meeting, so that they can consider and digest the opinions before a group discussion.

Now comes the hard part: engaging the board in an open and honest discussion about how well it is doing, and identifying areas for improvement. In this way, the process is similar to that commonly used when evaluating staff. A positive evaluation confirms and reinforces strong performance. A less glowing evaluation confirms and reinforces strengths, but also identifies areas for improvement and recommends specific action steps. Typically, there are a few “Aha! moments” in this process where board members realize they could be more effective, but there also moments of appreciation for their hard work in governing the organization. The discussion should end with consensus on specific action steps that can be implemented as soon as the next meeting.

Whatever your board’s evaluation reveals, make sure to focus on positive aspects as well as areas for improvement. Celebrate your board’s commitment and the challenges you have collectively overcome this past year. Evaluation, like any serious form of self-assessment, will make the work of governance even more meaningful and rewarding for all.

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