Board Self-Assessments Help Improve Board Effectiveness and Cohesion

A key responsibility of each governing board is to honestly assess its own performance to ensure that it is carrying out its responsibilities within a healthy climate that fosters open discussion, sound decision making, and respect for all members. There are assessments of individual board members and others that assess the board as a whole; at Propel Nonprofits (Propel) we conduct the latter. And, in short, board self-assessments are a part of a board’s good governance practices. 

While these self-assessments can be daunting, we’ve found that they are an effective tool in improving a board’s effectiveness and cohesion. Last year, we conducted 25 board development projects, some of which included a self-assessment. Recently, Propel updated its board self-assessment tool with the intention of including more diversity, equity, and inclusion components within the self-assessment. We share this blog with you after reflecting on the purpose of board self-assessments and how they offer insights to creating a more effective and cohesive board.  

Boards can create an adaptive culture by conducting informal and formal forms of assessment. For example, boards can seek informal feedback from board members at the end of a board meeting and use that information to make changes meeting-by-meeting. Boards can also conduct a more formal self-assessment using a tool offered by nonprofit consultants or other nonprofit capacity builders. We encourage boards to engage in this kind of work when the board or organizational leadership recognizes there is lack of engagement by board members, there’s a “clunkiness” in board meetings and activities, boards are preparing for self-development or transition, or when board leaders want to proactively check how board members are feeling about the board’s performance.  

Propel Nonprofits administers a board self-assessment tool based on our 5 Board Roles and Responsibilities framework – Lead Strategically, Ensure Financial Stability, Be an Ambassador, Supervise and Support the Executive Director, and Ensure Healthy Governance. A sixth area in the self-assessment focuses on the organizational climate for the board. Individual board members are asked to rate the performance of the board in multiple responsibilities under each of these six categories. 

The self-assessment gives us a collective view on how board members view the performance of the board. This assessment produces two very important results: 

  1. It elevates those areas where the board feels it’s performing well; areas that can be celebrated and continued 
  2. It surfaces areas that might be prime for board learning and development 

In those areas where board development may be needed, we work with the nonprofit clients to identify if what’s being elevated are technical challenges or adaptive challenges. In other words, does the board need some training on reading financial statements (technical challenge) or is there limited interest in the board finances by most board members (adaptive challenges)? Each of those items require different solutions. 

In a recent revision of our board self-assessment tool, our Strategic Services team included questions to specifically raise how the board is talking about and acting on items related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Questions were related to:  

  • the board’s shared understanding of the organization’s equity commitment  
  • the board’s involvement of people impacted by the organization’s mission in strategy development  
  • the board creating multiple pathways for and supporting board members’ ability to engage in board conversations and decision making 
  • an understanding and assessment of the power dynamics within the board and executive director relationship  
  • fostering inclusion in decision making by practicing rotational leadership 

In a time when many nonprofits are examining their ability to carry out DEI work, boards are recognizing they need to be proactive and responsive to organizational needs in this area. Our team made these changes to the board self-assessment tool as a response to board members regularly discussing with us that they’d like to be better equipped to carry out DEI objectives. The self-assessment serves as an initial step of surfacing how well the board is carrying out DEI objectives and introduces these topics for celebration or further board learning and development.  

We started to implement the use of this board self-assessment with new clients at the beginning of September 2022. We hope to learn how important and relevant these sorts of questions are when we’re talking about board effectiveness and cohesion. At the same time, we hope to surface these sorts of diversity, equity, and inclusion elements for nonprofit boards. As with past self-assessments, we will have the opportunity to hand off what we learned to board leaders or continue to support them as consultants in their board development journey. We also look forward to sharing more with you about what we learn. 

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