More and more lately I’ve been asked to conduct board evaluations. This has been a good way to develop a relationship with an organization, and to help them when they know something “just isn’t right.” Oftentimes a nonprofit leader can tell that things are not going the way they want them to, but they just can’t put their finger on the actual problem (or problems). That’s where I come into the picture!
When I start visiting with an agency, I usually begin by asking them a few questions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get them thinking and moving in the right direction. More often, those questions lead to even more questions, which leads to me coming in to provide a full evaluation.
The components of a full evaluation can look different from agency to agency, depending on the size, longevity, whether or not they have paid staff, and more. There are several things I look at when evaluating the health and effectiveness of a board. Some include:
- The Executive/Board Chair relationship
- Executive Director’s thoughts on board leadership
- Board President’s understanding of board leadership
- Management tools that have been established
- Communication systems
- Official or implied board expectations
- The board’s effectiveness in carrying out their responsibilities
- Whether or not the board is fulfilling their duties
Let’s look at each of these aspects of nonprofit leadership.
Executive Director/Board Chair Relationship
Some organizations have the Executive Director report to an Executive Committee, the Human Resources Committee, or even the whole board. Any of those options are fine. The important thing is that there is a healthy, open and honest relationship between the Executive Director and the person or group they report to.
This relationship is unique to the nonprofit sector and can be tricky. In many organizations the Executive Director drives the work and leadership of the Board of Directors. The tricky part comes up because the board is actually the supervisor of the exec. So the board supervises the individual who informs and guides their work. Even in agencies where the board is largely self-governing, the exec and the board rely on one another to drive their pieces of the organization.
This relationship is key to the success of the nonprofit. It requires mutual respect and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Clear, open and consistent communication is the foundation to ensuring relationship success.
Executive Director’s Thoughts on Board Leadership
Whether the exec likes it or not, some portion of their job involves board leadership. Every organization is different and therefore, what each nonprofit needs from their board is different. Since the Executive Director works in the agency every day, she or he is best informed about what the organization needs from its volunteers. The board looks to the exec to shape their work.
Additionally, no one is born knowing how to be a good board member. Even when someone comes to a board with experience serving on other Boards of Directors, it doesn’t mean they know how best to serve this organization.
When evaluating this aspect of an agency, I consider whether the exec wants to be completely hands off, or if they are trying to micromanage the volunteers. Either can lead to challenges. Going back to the previous point, we look at the communication that has happened between the board and the exec. Have they addressed what roles each will fill? If not, how does anyone know what they should be focusing their energy on?
Board President’s Understanding of Board Leadership
What does the board president believe their role is? Are they there to just lead meetings? Should they be driving a set of strategies? Can they address volunteers who are not contributing? Not to sound like a broken record on these first three bullets, but it all comes down to the relationship and communication between the exec and the board.
In case it hasn’t been clear so far – effective nonprofit leadership boils down to relationships. However, putting tools and processes in place can help ensure that the work that goes into building great relationships is well managed. Pieces that I recommend boards establish include:
- Clear board expectations
- A process for deepening connections
- System for tracking prospects
- Clear and thoughtful communication systems
- A thoughtful and thorough on-boarding process
- Professional and effective board meetings
Without some of these basic processes in place agencies often end up spinning their wheels. They have great conversations with no system for following up. They create great connections, but lose track of the individuals. Or they attract really great board or donor prospects, and end up scaring them away by appearing unorganized and unprofessional.
I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. A communication system does not need to be elaborate. However, it does need to be thoughtful and intentional. Without a plan, emails can spiral out of control. Pretty soon, no one wants to be associated with the organization because they cannot handle the number of communications they receive.
Well functioning organizations come to an agreement as a board/staff team about how often they communicate and in what manner. They establish an understanding about etiquette. When there is a real emergency, they can deviate from their plan, otherwise they trust their system and make adjustments as needed.
I touched on board expectations under the management tools section. Like communication, this component is so important that I wanted to call it out separately as well.
No one likes to commit to something if they don’t know what they are getting themselves into, right? This is especially true with joining boards. When a new board member is recruited, there’s a good chance that this is their first experience serving on a Board. It’s an unknown for them. Using Board Expectations as a recruiting tool can answer a ton of questions for them and help them to make a good decision about getting involved.
Your expectations can be used for evaluating the board’s performance as a whole and as individuals. You can also reference it when dealing with issues of engagement or to raise the bar for the board team. As an organization’s needs change, board expectations are easy to change and update. Expectations should tie directly to what an agency needs its volunteers to be doing in order to advance the cause.
Every board has three overarching responsibilities. The governance volunteers are responsible for the mission, vision, and strategies. They ensure the organization has the resources (usually people and money) to deliver the mission, vision, and strategies. And they are responsible for making certain that the organization is operating legally and in a fiscally appropriate manner.
These three functions are consistent across all Boards of Directors. A board evaluation looks at the extent to which the board owns these responsibilities. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing if they even understand that they should be owning them.
Lastly, I like to review the board’s relationship to the duties of a Board of Directors. Like board responsibilities, duties are the same from one organization to the next. Responsibilities differ from duties in that responsibilities are functions, things the board does. The duties of the board speak more to how the board conducts itself.
Board duties include: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Again, when evaluating an organization, I gauge their understanding of these duties, and their commitment to them.
Conducting a board evaluation involves interviews with organizational leaders, review of documents, and sometimes attending a board meeting. It concludes with a report to the organization outlining and prioritizing opportunities for improvement. When a nonprofit knows that their board needs work, but they don’t know where to begin, an evaluation is a great place to start!
Do you know of a Board of Directors that could be stronger, more efficient, or more effective? I’d love to visit with them to see if I can get them moving in the right direction. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, let’s chat!
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.