Your Board at Its Best: Benefits of Board Assessment

Why Board Assessment?

All nonprofits need a strong, engaged board with the skills, talents, knowledge, and expertise to make key decisions and build organizational capacity for producing results. Every organization is different, and each board has a unique culture. However, there are common qualities of a healthy, engaged board that has the capacity to govern effectively and the self-awareness to continue to grow and evolve with the organization. Assessment can help boards examine these qualities and identify where they are doing well, where they could be stronger, and how they should prioritize board development efforts.

Perhaps your organization has a longstanding board that could use a shot in the arm. Or maybe the board is already in transition, trying to grow from the board it has been to the board it wants to be. Boards at every stage of development should consider assessment as an opportunity to clarify their roles and responsibilities, reflect on the value they bring to the organization, and re-energize their engagement.

The benefit of board assessment is not to come up with a “report card” on board performance, but to involve board members in a process of reflection that will take their participation – and the organization – to the next level.

Approaches to Board Assessment

There are many options for boards wishing to engage in an assessment process. Some approaches involve simple worksheets that can be entirely self-administered by the board. Others employ more sophisticated tools or facilitated processes. Typically, “checklist” type self-assessments focus on basic board functioning and can be useful to boards that want to monitor their performance over time or in between more in-depth assessments. Facilitated assessments address all the same board responsibility areas, but can delve more deeply into the quality of board engagement using the objective eye of an expert observer, and as such can often inform more significant board transformation.

Three Levels of Governance

In their influential 2004 book, Governance as Leadership, Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor identify three levels of governance:

Fiduciary: The board focuses on managing the organization’s resources well; this level is about productivity.

Strategic: The board spends time figuring out the best ways to deploy resources to achieve the mission; this level is about logic. 

Generative: The board thinks about the “why” and “why not,” asks “what could be,” and uses sense-making to keep the organization doing what is most important; this level is about values and purpose.

The danger of most any kind of assessment tool is that in seeking to be broadly applicable, they tend to provide oversimplified or “one size fits all” results. But every board is different, and board roles, needs, priorities, and capacities vary depending on the organization’s size, age, stage in its life cycle, and/or other factors. Thus, strong board performance may look very different from one board to the next. It is also important not to stop at assessing performance, but to seek out indicators that the board has an equally strong purpose.

Assessments are generally very good at identifying board strengths and weaknesses at the fiduciary level, making sure that boards understand and are effectively executing their fiscal and legal responsibilities on behalf of the organization. Some assessments also evaluate board capacity at the strategic level, gauging a board’s involvement in setting organizational direction, monitoring progress toward strategic goals, and making course corrections as necessary. But in order to understand the board’s capacity for generative governance, it is often necessary to look beyond the assessment tool itself and read between the lines. Facilitated assessments can help boards not only hone in on areas of fiduciary or strategic governance where they should develop their capacity, but also recognize the opportunities for more generative conversations about how to best fulfill their purpose – and that of their organization.

The Nonprofit Board Self-Assessment Tool

La Piana Consulting’s Nonprofit Board Self-Assessment Tool is not a product, but a process designed to help a board assess how well it is doing and identify where it wants to further develop and strengthen its capacity. Through a customizable online survey, board members rate and comment on board performance in key areas, provide written responses on top strategic issues facing the organization and the best opportunities for board development in light of those needs.

The survey findings then inform a board discussion in which all board members are engaged in making sense of the results and formulating next steps. The consultant frames the conversation and provides additional analysis as needed to help the board translate the assessment findings and prioritize actions in a way that makes sense in light of the board’s – and its organization’s – strategic questions, stage of “life cycle” development, and other unique characteristics.

The consultant may also provide informal coaching support to board and/or staff leadership in areas such as dealing with board resistance, managing difficult board/staff relationships, or placing board assessment within a broader context of organizational change.

Observations from the Field

Over the past six years, La Piana Consulting has conducted facilitated board assessments with more than 75 organizations, large and small, young and old, working in a variety of different fields. We have found that many boards struggle to build the capacity for effective fiduciary governance, in which case assessment is often a useful diagnostic for identifying areas where board education and development is needed. Most of the boards we work with are grappling with how to engage more at the strategic level, and for these boards the assessment helps galvanize their thinking about strategic priorities and their role in setting future direction. A small number of boards have already demonstrated generative governance, or have expressly asked our help in strengthening their capacity in this area. For this last group, the assessment process serves as a springboard for board conversation on how to bring the organization, and its work, to the next level.

Our approach is collaborative, combining the board’s self-assessment of its strengths and challenges with our consultants’ objective expertise, facilitation, and experience gained from working with all types of boards. Together, the assessment tool, the board discussion, and the third-party consultant perspective helps the board to constructively surface challenges, see things in new ways, align behind key priorities, and turn action into results.

Board assessment can be done quickly and effectively with little disruption to the board’s regular operations or other organizational priorities (after all, the whole point of an assessment is to help the board better serve the organization, not to distract from it). Yet as many as 40% of boards have never engaged in a written self-assessment. This is a missed opportunity to engage the board in examining its own performance, just as it would any other major organizational asset.

“Before the board assessment, I had no idea where our strengths and weaknesses were. It has been very eye-opening to see what we need to do as a board.”

Board Chair of a human services nonprofit that recently completed a board self-assessment

Nonprofits must be nimble and creative in responding to the increasingly rapid pace of change. Many are reviewing their business models, restructuring, or revisiting and revising their core strategies, potentially transformative work in which the board must be prepared to play a critical role. Understanding the board’s development needs and priorities is particularly important if the organization is contemplating a major change, but even those organizations that just want to improve their everyday organizational functioning can benefit from board assessment.