In the previous sections, the importance of strong and effective governance has been emphasized. If the board does not evaluate, however, all the good work it does can be in vain. Both for-profit and non-profit organizations need to evaluate their work as a way to be accountable and transparent to their stakeholders. It’s a task that is often overlooked or under-rated in the non-profit field. Non-profit boards may feel they don’t have the expertise or knowledge to carry out evaluation, or they may tackle it only when faced with an organizational crisis or at the special request of a third-party such as a funder.
Board evaluation is a key part of the board governance structure and is different from an evaluation of programs and services. Boards need to take ownership and control over their evaluation. To evaluate effectively a board first needs to ensure that there are benchmarks in place, many of which have been touched upon in previous sections such as:
- Having clear board job descriptions
- Hiring competent senior staff
- Having a strategic plan
- Having a strong chairperson
- Holding effective board meetings
- Adopting a governance structure that fits with the culture of the organization.
Board evaluation is linked with planning and is directly tied to achieving the outcomes and results outlined in the board’s strategic plan. While it’s important to not wait until your board is in crisis mode before doing an evaluation, an evaluation can bring to light warning signs that your board is getting off track. Charity Village has a comprehensive article on the importance of board assessment and evaluation. The article talks about the correlation between evaluation and high organizational performance and states that, among other things, a high performance organization is more likely to have:
- Competent board and staff leadership
- Board engagement in strategic planning
- A customer and results focus
- Positive relationships with key stakeholders
- Good financial stewardship
- Effective and efficient use of resources
- Clear lines of accountability
- Good meeting management
- An organizational culture that encourages good teamwork, respect for organizational norms, values staff, and encourages excellence
- Low levels of internal conflict
- Perceived legitimacy and credibility
As noted above, one of the main drivers for board evaluation is often an accountability expectation by funders. However, it’s also important for the board to evaluate its work to provide accountability to individual board members, staff, clients, its membership and the broader community it serves. If done properly, it also is an effective way to gain feedback and learn how to improve its work.
Organizations that work within a Continuous Improvement Performance Management System (CIPMS) understand that evaluation is a key part of measuring effectiveness, efficiency and client satisfaction.
The evaluation process looks at what the board has achieved and how it has achieved it. The board is responsible for evaluating the areas that pertain to governance. Staff or independent consultants are usually responsible for evaluating programs and services. The board’s area of evaluation responsibilities include:
- Board management (meetings, roles of individual directors, committees, etc.)
- Board development (recruitment and orientation process, governance structure)
- Board goals, mission and strategic plan
- Senior staff (i.e., Executive Director)
Some tasks may happen more regularly, such as evaluating board meetings and checking in with work related to the strategic plan, while other areas such as evaluating the ED may occur on an annual basis. Boards may choose to hire an independent consultant to assist with evaluation, but it is the board’s responsibility to decide on the process and to ensure that it is implemented.
There are several online board development resources that can assist with the evaluation process. United Way Canada’s board development resource suggests a six-step process:
- Decide on the purpose of the evaluation
- Set up an evaluation structure
- Prepare the evaluation design
- Gather information
- Analyze information
- Action and implementation
For example, using the six-step process above a board decides it needs to evaluate its current governance structure.
- The purpose: To determine if the current structure is still an effective way to govern.
- Evaluation structure: The board as a whole will work together on the evaluation using a combination of self-evaluation and engaging an outside facilitator.
- Evaluation design: The board will access tools that help them evaluate effectiveness and efficiency related to the board decision-making process, the current level of board involvement of daily organizational operations, and the relationship of authority between the board and staff.
- Gather information: A questionnaire for individual board members and senior staff will be used to anonymously collect information, and a focus group will be facilitated with the board as a whole.
- Analyze information: An independent consultant will collect all the data, summarize and present it to the board as a whole.
- Action and implementation: Based on the results presented to the board, the board will decide whether to maintain its current governance structure or to investigate another model that fits more with the culture of the organization based on the information collected. The board will agree on any action steps to take.
At a minimum, board evaluation needs to include each board member and senior staff person, but boards should also consider involving committee members, members-at-large, organizational stakeholders (including funders) and past board members. Organizations can choose a variety of tools to conduct evaluations and gather information including surveys and questionnaires, self-assessment tools, personal interviews and focus groups.
Board members should conduct self-assessments regularly. This can include a brief check-in after each meeting along with a more comprehensive one annually or at the end of a term. An annual self-assessment may be kept confidential for the member’s own personal growth and development goals, or it may be collected by the chairperson or board development committee so that a broader perspective can be gained about possible board training needs. A self-assessment can include items such as:
- The percentage of meetings attended over the year (or term)
- The satisfaction level of meeting preparation
- The satisfaction level of meeting participation
- Personal strengths and weaknesses
- The success level of meeting the criteria laid out in the board job description
Sources for board member self-assessment tools include Board Member Self-Assessment Evaluation of Job Performance and assessing board performance
When collecting information from past board members and organizational stakeholders consider using an online survey tool such as SurveyMonkey that provides templates and allows you to design your own questions. This can allow boards to reach a large group of people who can complete the survey within a timeframe provided and allows for anonymous collection.
Evaluating the work of the board as a whole may be best done by an independent facilitator (though staff or board members may have this skill, it may be difficult to be neutral and to refrain from contributing). The importance of this function can be reinforced by earmarking some of the organization’s operating costs toward the cost of an independent evaluator/facilitator. This also leads to increased accountability and transparency when reporting results to the board and to stakeholders. Collecting information may be handled by a combination of methods including questionnaires and focus groups. An evaluator may also pull in information from other sources such as individual self-assessments and stakeholder surveys.
Items that a board will want to look at when evaluating its work as whole include:
- How it operates within its mission, goals and bylaws
- Board members’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities
- Board job descriptions
- The work of committees and their terms of reference
- The composition and structure of the board
- Risk management policies and safeguards
- Recruitment and orientation practices
- Evaluation procedures for senior staff and individual board members
- Accomplishments and actions taken that relate to the organization’s strategic plan
The board of Community Literacy of Ontario conducts an in-depth review of its activities annually. We’ve included CLO’s comprehensive board evaluation checklist below. Have each board member fill out the checklist and email the results to the board evaluation committee (or board chair). Compile, discuss the results, highlight and act on areas needing further development.
Board Evaluation Checklist
(Source: CLO’s Board Development Committee; Mel Gill, Governing for Results: A Director’s Guide to Good Governance; and Checklist to Evaluate a Nonprofit Board of Directors
1 – Not happening, development needed DK – Don’t Know
3 – OK, development may be needed NA – Not Applicable
5 – Excellent, no development needed at this time
- The Bruner Foundation partners with other funders and non-profit service providers on projects targeted at building evaluation capacity and/or evaluative thinking. It has recently published eleven individual Integrating Evaluative Thinking Bulletins covering the following topics: evaluation basics and definitions, evaluative thinking basics and assessment of evaluative thinking, evaluation and non-profit boards, commissioning evaluation, collecting, analyzing and using evaluation data, communicating about evaluation, evaluation and technology, evaluation and HR, evaluation and alliances, increasing participation in evaluation, and sustaining evaluative thinking. Each bulletin is brief and full of practical suggestions made by non-profit partners who reviewed the work. A complete set of all bulletins, as well as other complementary tools and resources are available via the Bruner Foundation website (www.brunerfoundation.org).
- Checklist to Evaluate a Non-profit Board of Directors. (Edited by Carter McNamara for the Greater Twin Cities United Way). The checklist indicators represent what is needed to have a healthy, well-managed organization.
- Imagine Canada’s Sector Source Board Self-evaluation tool.
- Board Building: Recruiting and Developing Effective Board Members for Not-for-Profit Organizations. The Muttart Foundation. A tool for assessing the work of the board.