Self-Assessments for Nonprofit Boards

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The Maine Association of Nonprofits has perfectly summed up the critical importance of regular self-assessments for boards:

A strong, vibrant board of directors is a clear indicator of a healthy organization. Yet even the best organizations need a periodic check-up to ensure that they cannot just survive but will really thrive in today’s environment. To check your board’s vital signs, or to put in place practices and strategies for a healthy and energized board, the best place to start is with a board self-assessment.
In the most recent Leading with Intent survey, a governance survey conducted by BoardSource, only 58 percent of organizations reported that they use a formal, written self-assessment to evaluate their board's effectiveness. We think that more nonprofits would benefit from a self-assessment process. We're not sure why more boards do not regularly assess their own performance, but perhaps they just don't feel prepared to do so. One way to start is to ask each board member to reflect on his or her own role as a board member in preparation for a general discussion about the role of the board in general. Then put the latter topic on the agenda for a future board meeting. It's astonishing how frequently this basic but beneficial discussion is overlooked.
Many people serving on a nonprofit's board have never done so before, and others may have served on a nonprofit board that has different expectations for board members, so a basic discussion about the role of the board will help set consistent expectations. Once expectations are managed, the next step is to invite board members to participate in a self-assessment process that will reveal how far away (or not!) the board believes it is from the expectations it set for itself. The results of the self-assessment can help identify issues needing clarification, gaps in skills board members believe they need for the board to be successful, and topics for future board education. And importantly, the self-assessment process will engage the board in the same process that the nonprofit itself should be quite familiar with: measuring its own effectiveness.
The bottom line is that effective boards are those that regularly and candidly ask themselves: "How can we do better?"

Practice Pointers

As a board, grapple with two fundamental questions: "Why does this nonprofit exist?" and "How can our board help advance the mission?" to focus the board before engaging in a self-assessment process.

Self-assessments may feel threatening to some board members, and getting buy-in to devote time to the process may itself take some time.


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