Tips & Tools for Assessing Nonprofit Board Performance

We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are. – Max DePree

Nonprofit executives and Board volunteers today are leading organizations through a time of rapid change and challenge. To succeed in this new era our organizations need to embrace a continuous improvement mindset and seek ways to become better in all areas of our work. In my blog, 15 Benefits of Assessing Nonprofit Board Performance, I highlighted the benefits of evaluating performance, so lets explore some tips and tools for board assessment.

Assessing board performance is a shared responsibility

A good place to start is at the director recruitment stage with the Nominations Committee. While vetting board candidates the committee can take the opportunity to set expectations for learning, reinforce the importance of accountability and the board’s commitment to continuous improvement. If candidates are fully informed upfront they will be more likely to embrace and actively support the assessment process.

Following director ratification, the assessment process can be detailed in a board orientation and in the Director Commitment Summary (an agreement all members sign upon joining to the board). Orientation sessions prepare directors for their role(s) and subsequently serve as a time of active reflection. Directors can be supportive of a closed-loop evaluation process by providing recommendations to improve the orientation for future recruits and identify gaps in their own readiness.

Placing ‘assessment’ as a standing item on board agendas can ensure time and resources are allocated to the process. At the executive committee level members should monitor board and the organization performance to ensure the benefits of the collective volunteer skill and knowledge are being leveraged.

Most board’s expect each member to assume a role on a standing or ad hoc committee. These committees help with the ‘heavy lifting’, therefore the degree in which they function effectively is critical. Defining a process of evaluation can help define key performance measures and define the committee chair responsibility for leading the team. These determinants for success help guide committee work, clarify tasks and set clear accountability to measure against.

In my article “Do you have the right Board Chair?” I highlight the importance of selecting the Board Chair. A critical element of leading and managing the board’s performance assessment rests with a Chair who is skilled and knowledgeable in the area of evaluative techniques. Working alongside the executive director and board members who are skilled in human resources, the Chair ensures a fair and transparent process, sufficient resources are allocated and evaluation results are collated and reviewed with all members of the board in a timely manner. Assessing board performance is a shared responsibility however a crucial role of the Chair.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. – John F. Kennedy

In previous articles I underscored the need to build the partnership between Board Chair and Executive Director (CEO), in part due to the role an executive leader assumes as support to the board. Given that executive management is often charged with staffing board committees, executing the orientation sessions and reporting organization performance to the board, the executive director should be appropriately involved in all aspects of the board assessment.

Collect and review quantitative data regularly

The term quantitative refers to a type of information or data that is based on quantities obtained using a quantifiable measurement process. Many boards are examining new data collection processes as charities embrace digital tools, however there are some fundamental data points all boards should gather and review on a regular basis.

Boards commonly record meeting attendance to track participation, quorum and ensure directors are meeting the minimum attendance requirements. Deeper data collection can provide further insight when boards track comparative data on meeting cancellations, early departures, meeting costs and the numbers of face-to-face/telephone/video meetings held. Coupled with the committee progress reports, data sets should be reviewed by the Chair prior to each full board meeting and discussed with the committee chairs and the full board annually.

Tracking board expenses are usually allocated in a budget line item, however reviewing the gift-in-kind or expenses incurred by an individual or his/her company create a more complete picture. Examining costs of travel, meeting space, catering, external counsel to name a few provide data sets to compare time effectiveness and output of the team. Making connections to volunteer time and costs relative to board output can unearth new insights and learning for a board.

Many boards expect directors to donate annually and support the fundraising initiatives of their organization. Assessments can identify rates of participation, contribution averages, dollars raised year over year and measure the board’s effectiveness in supporting philanthropy. By presenting this information to the Chair and Treasurer on a quarterly basis s/he can monitor compliance to the Commitment Summary, monitor board support to executive management and proactively address concerns that may emerge in raising resources.

Your organization may prefer additional qualitative measures, for example: board project management metrics, scheduled rotation of policy review, tenure of directors or nomination pipeline metrics. Creating an inventory of the data sets for analysis, along with collection schedules and leadership assignments, enables boards to commit to a robust board assessment program.

The board, with the leadership from the Chair and the executive management, carefully reviewing other and all forms of quantitative data on a regular basis can support the board’s continuously learning and performance.

Commit the time for qualitative assessment

Qualitative information records qualities that are descriptive, subjective or difficult to measure. Commonly gathered through a process of surveys and interviews, more boards are using technology tools to  increase participation, collate the data and identify key themes that emerge.

Boards often identity the breadth of director skills presented in the form of a matrix. An engagement survey and individual interview can identify if skills in the matrix are being well applied, where competency gaps may exist and if director knowledge is being fully leveraged. Having board members engage in a ‘skills’ survey can inform the nomination committee and further aid the board in aligning skills and knowledge with organizational strategy.

Expanding the traditional number scale questionnaire to a four-part verbatim response survey can gather a broad set of information, opinions and recommendations from all board members. Investing more time examining the key areas of board chair, committee chair(s), board team and individual director performance can provide comparative responses and insight into possible gaps of the group while isolating the strengths and weaknesses of the team for development. Drilling down into levels of importance and satisfaction in areas of leadership, preparedness, engagement, employee-board relations, participation in decisions and sharing of the board responsibilities can be part of a written survey or planned discussion at an annual board retreat. A board may find external facilitator helpful in this review process to maintain objectivity, encourage full director participation and assist in managing group feelings and reactions.

Board members and executive management can benefit from an assessment process when remaining true to their developmental objectives while providing a safe and open environment for dialogue. As nonprofit leaders we operate in a rapidly changing environment and commit ourselves to bettering our communities, so why not commit to improving our board assessments.

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