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📃 What Are Your Board’s New Year’s Resolutions?

Boards routinely make resolutions. Besides the ones that result from a vote, the New Year is the perfect time for a board to complete a different best practice activity: a self-assessment.

Board self-assessments can be as simple as a one or two question survey or as complicated as one run by a third party that costs thousands of dollars. But, like having a workout goal to finally get on the treadmill this year, what is important to get it done is discipline, commitment, and taking one step at a time.

Did you know that a board self-assessment is a key factor for a nonprofit’s Candid (formerly Guidestar) profile? Guidestar has an entire section on board leadership practices, which includes the following five questions. Check out #5:

  1. Board orientation and education: Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations?
  2. CEO oversight: Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year?
  3. Ethics and transparency: Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year?
  4. Board composition: Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership?
  5. Board performance: Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years?

At The Olympia Collective, we help ensure boards are aware of all of the above practices. We are proudly BoardSource certified and leverage the BoardSource knowledge bank and network for our clients. A very frequent first step to board excellence is starting at #5 on the list above, and conducting a baseline self-assessment.

Why Should A Nonprofit Board Assess Itself?

Let’s remind ourselves of the three main duties of a nonprofit board: 1) to clearly define the organization’s vision and strategic direction, 2) to ensure the organization is properly resourced, and 3) to provide appropriate oversight of the organization’s assets, programs, and services. These are not small tasks, and as an unpaid team of caring volunteers, a board needs to know its strengths and weaknesses even more than paid staff do. Further, these duties as well as the Candid/Guidestar best practice #2 from the list above is to conduct an annual assessment of the CEO. Shouldn’t a board hold itself to the same standard to which it is holding its key employee?

Here are questions that relate to each of the three main duties, which coincidentally can serve as the categories in your board’s self-assessment:

Organizational vision and strategic direction

  • Is there a written board approved strategic plan in place?
  • If there is a written board approved strategic plan, is it still relevant?
  • If there is a written board approved strategic plan in place, how much is it used to guide decision making?
  • Is the strategic plan accessible by the public?
  • Does each board member know the organization’s mission statement by heart?
  • Can each board member clearly articulate the organization’s mission statement?
  • If there is no strategic plan in place, how recently has the mission statement been reviewed and updated by the board?
  • Are there board goals in place for the current year that will drive the strategic plan completion?
  • Is there a way for the board to evaluate the progress toward annual and longer term goals on a regular basis?
  • What processes are employed by the board to engage external constituent feedback to ensure the organization is meeting its mission and goals?
  • Do board members refer to the organization as we or they?
  • Do all board members give time as well as dollars to the organization?
  • Does this board and its contacts represent a significant portion of the organization’s revenue? Its relationships?

Organizational resources

  • Is the board fully engaged in the recruitment, development, training, and reviewing of its sole employee, the chief executive?
  • Is the board appropriately engaged in other staffing decisions besides the chief executive (ideally, this should be only upon request of the chief executive)?
  • Is there a succession plan in place for the chief executive?
  • Does the chief executive have what they need to ensure succession plans are in place for their leadership team?
  • Does the board conduct a regular self-assessment?
  • Does the board have a plan in place to act upon the findings of its self-assessment?
  • Is there a process in place by which individual board members are assessed or self-assessed?
  • Does the board have a plan in place to act upon the findings of individual board member assessments?
  • How are new board members onboarded?
  • How are board members trained with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed?
  • Is there a written agreement and job description that board members sign when they accept their role?
  • Are there board committees? How are they staffed and what is their effectiveness?
  • Are board meetings at the appropriate cadence and covering the appropriate content?
  • Are board meetings something each member looks forward to?
  • What is the nomination process for new board members, and how inclusive is the process?
  • Is there a succession plan in place for board officers and a strong board member pipeline for all leadership positions?
  • What is the diversity of the board and the board’s aspirations for diversity?
  • What defines diversity and inclusion for this board and its organization’s mission?
  • How strong is the organization’s financial position?
  • Does the board have transparency into financial metrics it needs to determine success?
  • Has the board and leadership successfully completed financial audits?
  • Is the board in unison regarding its approach and implementation of securing financial reserves and lowering financial risk of the organization?
  • How does the board ensure the organization’s brand, image, and position in its community align with its mission?
  • Is the board a true asset to the goodwill, brand, and community presence of the organization?
  • Is the board given appropriate insights into employee satisfaction, turnover, and productivity that it can use to be sure it is efficient and effective?

Oversight of organizational assets, programs, and services

  • How does the board monitor and learn about the organization’s programs, services, and other offerings?
  • Does the board play a role in ensuring the organization’s offerings are the best they can be?
  • Is there a committee or subgroup of the board that monitors and supports the mission/programming side of the organization?
  • How does the board protect the assets of the organization?
  • Is there a written board handbook or manual?
  • Where and how are board documents archived, maintained, and accessed?
  • Does the board have contingency and emergency plans in place for protecting assets?
  • Is there a written conflict of interest policy signed annually by each board member and leadership team member?
  • Is there an ethics policy that is easily accessed and followed by each board member and senior staff member?
  • Is there a process in place to raise ethical concerns within or outside of the board?
  • Does the board and senior team understand and endorse the rights of its donors and funders?
  • How is the board involved in the stewardship and cultivation of its largest donors?

Besides being a contributor to overall board success, each board member has three obligations to the organization, defined as:

  1. Duty of Care. Each board member should be up to speed on the organization and its current state. They should truly care about what is going on. This can be demonstrated not only in board attendance but in attending other programmatic activities. It can be shown in how the board member interacts with others at the organization. You can see Duty of Care in the questions people ask and how well they read materials or communications you send out. Is each member truly bought in? Are they taking their role seriously or is it just a resume builder or favor they are doing because they couldn’t say no? One way we see Duty of Care manifest is responsiveness to calls or emails–is the member responding promptly when the organization they are governing needs them?
  2. Duty of Loyalty. Each board member must be able to detect the fine line between their duty to the organization and any positive or negative affect this may have outside of the organization personally or professionally. Duty of Loyalty is why good boards have conflict of interest policies and adhere to them (Behold: #3 on the Candid/Guidestar list above is conflict of interest policies!) We were recently in a client board meeting where this duty was proudly on display. A board member proactively identified a potential conflict of interest and abstained from a vote that had the potential impact on their industry in general and their company in particular. As another display of Duty of Loyalty, some board members need to be aware of how to detach emotionally from the organization’s decisions. We find this especially important when founding board members, founders, or lifetime trustees are still serving on the board many years after the organization was born. It is a true gift to an organization when someone who has invested blood, sweat, and tears can still take a step back and separate their passion and life’s work from interfering with board decisions.
  3. Duty of Obedience. The top item for the overall board is steering the organization in the right direction and staying true to its stated vision, mission, and strategic plan. This also applies to each board member individually. They are here to be sure there is no mission drift on behalf of the board or leadership. When donors and funders entrust a nonprofit with their dollars, they expect a Duty of Obedience to the mission that they were promised. They expect legal and ethical compliance. They want to be sure their dollars are being spent for the purpose for which they were solicited. They want to know you as a group and individually respect the well-known AFP Donor Bill of Rights (which will be a future Food for Thought blog post on its own).

Although Candid/Guidestar suggests a self-assessment every three years, we strongly encourage annual self-assessments or assessments at a frequency that allows your organization to account for your specific term lengths and limits as well as strategic plan horizon and state of the organization.

Want to Go One Step Further? Have Individual Board Members Self-Assess, too.

If you or your organization are anxious to not only tackle a self-assessment of the full board but also the individuals themselves, your New Year is bound to be one for the record books! Because you can do individual board self-assessments, too.

At The Olympia Collective, one practice we have utilized successfully to help ensure each board member is engaged and participating to their potential is individual board member self-assessment. We customize a document for the client that relates to specific board member job descriptions or the three duties above. That serves as the perfect reason to set up a 1:1 conversation and check in on how things are going. It provides permission for fellow board members to share expectations and key information that allows each member to shine. This is a perfect step to take before you start thinking of nominations for new board members and board composition (see #4 on the Candid/Guidestar list–they really are onto something!). It helps you catalog diversity in all aspects and determine who or what is still missing on the team. Our next toolbelt item will be one such self-assessment. It’s the New Year’s gift that keeps on giving!

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Founded and led by veteran nonprofit fundraiser Olympia Ammon, The Olympia Collective specializes in non-profit revenue generation, board & staff support, and data & insights. We empower our clients to deliver maximum impact to the communities they serve.

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