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.