Measure Up with Board Assessments
Boards are constantly measuring and analyzing information about their associations, as is their charge. They typically seek answers to questions like: Are initiatives delivering value to members? Do programs have the resources they need to succeed? But a healthy board also needs regular checkups to ensure that it’s operating at peak performance. This can be done through periodic board assessments, which are a leading practice of successful associations.

However, the reality is that many boards overlook them. According to the most recent “Leading with Intent” survey from BoardSource, just 51 percent of nonprofit boards conduct regular self-assessments. Those that don’t are missing out on a valuable resource that can help improve their association.

Positive Impact

The American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants (AALNC) has been conducting annual board assessments for several years, explained Susan Carleo, immediate past president of the board of directors. “We started it because it was a good way to evaluate how we work as a board. It opens up discussion for any kind of improvements that we can make and fosters better communication and teamwork.” The experience – and the changes that have resulted from the assessments – have had a positive impact on the association’s performance, she said.

The AALNC board uses an online survey tool and the responses are anonymous. Anonymity is important because it allows participants to be more candid and objective, explained Kristin Dee, AALNC executive director. “It gives board members an opportunity to do a gut check with how they think they're doing,” said Dee. “It may reveal things that might not be said around the board table and gives the board some insight on areas where its strengths lie and where improvements are needed.” Further, it helps the board set priorities and keeps it focused on its mission, goals, responsibilities and core principles.

A Closer Look

There are a few different survey tools available to boards, all relatively similar. The typical survey includes questions in several different areas related to board activity including governance, legal/ethical issues, succession planning, roles and relationships, participation, strategic planning, financial/fiduciary responsibility, and culture. Within each area, there are several questions and/or statements about the performance of the entire board.

The questions are often generic, but can be customized if desired. They may include: Does the board understand the mission and is it focused on achieving it? Does the board have a strong partnership with the executive director? Does the board foster an environment of trust where all board members are engaged listeners, embracing respectful dissent, and emerging as one voice? Also, most assessment tools include opportunities for open-ended comments where respondents can elaborate on positive aspects of the board as well as areas of concern.

The frequency of the evaluations is up to the board, but they are typically done once a year, Dee explained. “And a best practice is to ask the same questions each time, so boards can benchmark the results against the previous year’s data,” she said.

Overcoming Fears

Usually, the executive director or board chair will compile the results for discussion at the next meeting. A best practice is to have the chair offer some initial thoughts, touching on some of the key findings, before opening the floor to the full board. One of the reasons that associations are reluctant to do self-assessment surveys is they don’t want people playing the blame game, Dee said. Also, there is hesitancy by some to speak freely about concerns when the board meets to discuss the results. But Dee noted that it’s not about the individual board members, but rather how the board functions as a body. “And the questions don't lend themselves to calling people out individually,” she added.

If there are issues of concern, the chair or executive director can bring them up so that no one feels pressured to lead the discussion. Then, the entire board can focus on solutions rather than finger pointing. Sometimes, the concerns are minor and easily solved — other times they spark major discussions that lead to positive changes. Ultimately, this is the goal of self-assessments — to improve the association.

For example, Dee said there was a particular survey where several board members responded to a question about finances by saying budgets should be forecasted more than one year out. So, after a board discussion, it was agreed to project revenues and expenses three years in advance. Another survey sparked an initiative to create a policies and procedures manual for the association, with reviews and opportunities for updates every few years. “There’s definitely been some good take-aways,” Dee stated.

Strengths and Personalities

There are various other tools that boards may use to assess their capabilities, including the “Strengths Finder” from Gallup. This assessment tool is based on the book by the same name authored by Don Clifton. Participants take a test and discover what their top five strengths are out of a list of 34. Some of the strengths include achiever, analytical, deliberative, empathy, maximizer, positivity, responsibility and strategic. It’s fun and non-threatening because people want to know what their strengths are. Plus, it gives board members a degree of self-awareness that allows them to leverage their strengths to solve problems and find solutions.

Some boards use what’s called a DISC profile tool, which is a behavioral assessment that allows board members to determine their personality types. DISC stands for the four major personality types – dominant, influencer, steadfast and conscientious – and the test enables board members to determine which type they are. The tool also highlights how each personality type is likely to respond in certain scenarios or environments and provides information on how to best work with the various personality profiles. This is important intelligence for a board because it lends insight into team dynamics. Ideally, boards want a healthy mix of all four types of personalities so that the strengths of each are represented. It can even be used for prospective board candidates to make sure a new board member fills a needed gap.

And don’t forget that assessments are one of the things that only boards can do — as outlined by SmithBucklin Chairman Henry Givray in his article, “The Seven Things that Only a Board of Directors Can Do” from the September 2013 edition of Board Forward. As many groups have found, board assessments are enlightening experiences that should not be viewed as an exercise in finding out what’s wrong, rather, it should be looked at as doing things right.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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