Board Self-Assessment: Starting the Journey to Improved Governance

by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

“Do you do board training? I need someone to conduct a workshop for my board and tell them what they are supposed to be doing.”

I frequently answer phone calls like this one. The calls are placed by frustrated executive directors, disgruntled board members, concerned grantmakers or disappointed fund development directors. Their hope is that if the board hears the “truth” from an outside “expert,” it will change its behavior.

If only a training session were the solution!

What would be your first reaction to an outsider who showed up at your workplace and, after talking to only one person, told everyone how you could be doing a better job? I wouldn’t be surprised if you started out a bit defensive…and thus had a hard time hearing some interesting ideas on how you might improve your performance. I know that I’ve never enjoyed being criticized or scolded.

So how can you initiate change in your board? Question mark in globe

I find important insights into board development by looking to the work of behavioral change or organization development theorists and practitioners. Their research suggests that in order for board change to be successful:

* A critical mass of directors (including a few of your board leaders) perceive a need for change.
* The rest of the board is willing to go along, willing to try new ways of acting and will not actively oppose the process.
* Directors are part of and agree with the “diagnosis” of the current condition.
* Directors believe that the improvement plan has a chance of succeeding and that the benefits of change outweigh the costs.
* Directors understand that change takes time and they are willing to commit the time and resources needed to make the change.
* There is some level of trust and cooperation among the directors.
* Directors believe they personally can behave differently and then they actually learn the skills needed to perform the new behaviors.
* The Board and organization support and reinforce the new ways of doing things.

Getting change started through conversation and self-assessment

Learning from these concepts, I’ve found that it’s easier to get change moving forward when a critical mass of the board has already concluded that it is dissatisfied with the way it is working now and that it would like to try something new. One way of getting your board interested in exploring new ways of working is to get them to commit to a self-assessment, especially one that allows them to think and talk about what the board is like today and what it might aspire to become.

I am a fan of self-evaluation because I find that it’s easier for people to be open to feedback when they have a high degree of control over the process and the input. Assessment isn’t complicated. It’s designed to get you to compare your current practice against a set of best practice benchmarks and to make explicit what directors think about:

  • What works?
  • What doesn’t?
  • What would they like to change?
  • What recommendations do they have for doing things differently?

Choosing an assessment tool
There are many board self-assessment tools available today in the marketplace – free, inexpensive and more costly options. You’ll find them in your favorite publications or online.

When selecting your tool, look for one that is easy to understand, avoids industry jargon, doesn’t take long to complete, and allows all perspectives to surface.Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t suggest you try our book, How to make your board dramatically more effective, starting today.

The process I use most often in my own work with boards is to start with a brief overview of best practices. I happen to like to get directors into the practice of reading and reflecting, so that’s the way that I introduce these benchmarks (which is why I use my book which I wrote specifically for this purpose).

Then, I ask directors to complete a questionnaire that includes both multiple choice and open ended questions (included in my book, but I also use online survey tools to compile the results). You are also looking to get a super-majority, if not 100% of your directors to participate.

If the situation allows, I round out the survey by conducting one-on-one interviews and observing at least one board meeting.

You don’t have to engage a consultant to do a self assessment, especially once your board gets into the yearly habit of evaluating its own process. But, the neutrality of a third party can make the feedback easier to accept, especially if there is conflict within the board or a lack of agreement on what a board should be doing. And, consultants serve as a resource to share their expertise and experience working with boards of all different types.

Validating the findings is critical to owning the change process.
Once your board has completed the survey, it needs to hear what all the other directors felt about the way it functions. It’s helpful to hear that feedback together and also get it in writing.

After hearing the report, your board needs to validate the findings. Do they understand why certain questions were answered the way they were. Do they agree on what is working and what isn’t? Do they agree on what needs improving? Did the consultant, if one was used, really understand what they said? Can they embrace the findings as their own? Once the assessment is validated, it’s time to plan what the improvement process will look like.

* What interventions are needed?
* What will we work on first, second, etc.?
* Who is responsible for what?
* Who will be the project manager?
* How will the board measure its progress?

Again, a consultant can be very helpful to moving forward the change, especially when the board lacks the internal expertise in governance. Ultimately, however, the board should seek to integrate self-assessment into its work plan so that reflective practice and continuous improvement become routine, comfortable and eagerly anticipated.

Deciding to change isn’t enough to make change happen.

You’ve also got to discover and practice new skills. Assessment is the first step. But you are just beginning the path to change.

For example, even though your board decided it needs a new nominating and recruitment process, it still has to create one. Your board may need more education and information about how high performing boards approach that task.

Let’s stay with the same example. Your nominations committee, after investigating many different processes, determines that formal candidate interviews are essential to recruiting top notch directors so it creates a set of questions.

There is still one more step, though, before your directors put desires into action. If directors lack the skills needed to follow through with the new practice, then they need to develop those missing skills if they hope to be successful. For example, you might have to conduct some role plays or practice interviews before your directors start interviewing the real candidates.

Here’s another example. You’ve read about or observed board meetings where directors tackle controversial topics and air strongly held differences honestly, respectfully and without animosity or hard feelings. In order to attempt such discussions, your directors and especially your chair may need training in listening and facilitation skills.

You also need to put supporting structures in place.
To maintain your new way of doing things, you’ll need to create a culture and the systems that will reinforce those new behaviors. That’s why I’m a very big advocate of board governance committees. Board functioning is taken more seriously when boards elect individuals to year round, standing governance committees.

These dedicated committees have the time and focus to support the creation of a culture of excellence, to cradle reflective practice, and to safe-guard the new systems that nurture the board, including recruitment, training, education, one-one-one connections, leadership development and continuous learning. Remember that change is a path and not an end point. Practice does make perfect (or, at least much better). You’ll refine and improve your board governance as long as you keep asking yourselves how you are doing, and how you can do it better.

This article first appeared in Contributions Magazine. Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.