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Jan 30, 2013

Board evaluations

I recently followed a discussion group on Linked In that asked whether board members should do self-evaluations.  There were many comments but I found the most helpful came from Michael Chulada.  He said, “assessments are most credible with members and most helpful to their organizations when they’ve defined the criteria rather than using assessments created by others. The criteria can be developed easily at a board retreat with a simple 5 step process.

“1) Have a discussion about what the organization really needs from the board as a whole.
2) Considering those needs, brainstorm a list of the things that board members will need to do in order for the board to do what it needs to do for the organization.
3) Post the list on a wall and have each board member check all items she/he agrees should be expectations for members and X’s on any with which they significantly disagree.
4) Discuss the results — some items will generate significant support, some little support, and others mixed opinions.
5) Make a list of assessment criteria using the items. Start the list using the items in the “significant support” group. Give people an opportunity to make a case for adding specific items from the “little support” group and, where people tend to agree, add them to the criteria. Finally, discuss the “mixed opinion” group adding or subtracting items based on changes in opinion.

“Creating the criteria at the beginning of the period to be assessed is most important. The least helpful approach is asking people to immediately assess their performance based on the criteria they’ve just created. Instead, refine the criteria post-retreat and have the board take formal action on them at the next meeting. When the assessments are completed and collated at the end of the year, use any one of the great ideas suggested by commentators earlier to tie the results into the planning and priority setting efforts of the board.

This is such an important area that I was delighted to see so much commentary.  I think that Michael Chulada’s suggestions are on the mark.  I have not experienced good results with a “group” evaluation.  It reinforces the “social” tone that undermines board effectiveness in the sense that the board members wants to be nice and supportive to maintain their camaraderie so it deteriorates into a self-congratulatory exercise.  I believe that an annual conversation between the Governance committee and each board member has the best potential, especially if the focus is on what the board member wants to contribute to the organization (effort, accomplishments, etc. not just money) and the annual review is how satisfied the board member is with how the past year matched with those expectations.

The reason for my focus is that board engagement is the Achilles heel of most nonprofits.  Board members start with energy but it soon evaporates if the board member does not feel engaged and useful.  For this reason, I believe that it is important to see how well the board experience matches the board members expectations.  I think it is a mistake to have the board member be evaluated solely on what s/he did for the nonprofit.  After all, it should be a two-way street.