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Paving the way to better governance

The key to a healthy nonprofit organization and better governance depends in large part on the board of directors or trustees. A competent, focused and constructively engaged board sets the stage for a strong and healthy organization.

But even the most capable boards don't happen by chance. They're the result of periodic evaluations of their makeup and performance — in other words, board assessments. Typically done annually, assessments provide a platform for board members to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The goal is to clarify roles and responsibilities, identify gaps and shortcomings, and improve performance in ways that are aligned with the organization.

Unfortunately, many boards fail to assess their performance. Whatever the reasons — lack of time, unwillingness, a feeling that it's unnecessary or a concern that the process will be divisive rather than productive — there's little doubt that assessments facilitate positive change. Done well, assessments increase a board's effectiveness and accountability, improve its relationship with the executive leader and help ensure that the organization is being served well.

Start with a discussion

If you've never done a board assessment, it can be tough to know where to begin. That's where having a plan and the right tools come in.

As a starting point, set aside time for all board members to discuss several fundamental questions:

  • What is the mission of our nonprofit?
  • What are the current strategic priorities?
  • What is the board's role in advancing these objectives?

Once consensus has been reached on these topics, you can move on to the assessment.

Choose the assessment format

Your assessment will determine whether the board is aligned with and possesses the knowledge, experience and skills needed to deliver on the organization's vision. Depending on the size and nature of your nonprofit, a board assessment can happen in a variety of ways, including:

  • A meeting with all board members to discuss the board's performance and effectiveness
  • A written self-assessment that board members take to rate their own performance
  • A written peer assessment in which members evaluate their own performance and that of their peers, followed by individual meetings with the board chair to share results
  • A third-party assessment that involves gathering extensive data through surveys, confidential interviews and group discussions

Regardless of the path your board takes to assess performance, confidentiality and trust are paramount. So is providing candid feedback.

Review the findings

Once all insights and data have been gathered, the next step is to review findings and prioritize which are most important to the organization and most likely to improve board function. Once that's been determined, a different type of work begins — acting on those priorities to create positive change.

Not surprisingly, all of this takes serious time, energy and commitment. It also requires a healthy board — one able to engage in rigorous introspection in a mature, respectful way. Even for strong boards, the work of changing ineffective behaviors and patterns is seldom easy.

Still, the rewards can be significant or even transformative. Ongoing assessments help boards perform at full potential, better enabling them to provide strategic counsel that moves the organization forward.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Harvard Business Review: A more effective board of directors by Ana Dutra (2012)

National Council of Nonprofits: Self-assessments for nonprofit boards

BoardSource: Assessing performance

MIT Sloan Management Review: How should board directors evaluate themselves? by Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody (2005)

Ivey Business Journal: Evaluating the directors: The next step in boardroom effectiveness by Jay Conger and Edward Lawler III (2002)



Seasoned writer covering a spectrum of industries, including nonprofit, financial services, health care, insurance and technology