A key component of overall board health is understanding our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, better known as a SWOT analysis. SWOTs are a great way to evaluate your organization, its mission and programming but, often, nonprofits do not take the time to evaluate their board of directors as well. It is important to consider how each member of the board fits together to make the organization stronger and individual evaluations are the first step in this process.
All board members should be able to contribute two of the following attributes: time, talent and treasure. You may be able to dedicate your time and skills to the organization, or your talent and treasure, you may be able to contribute all three. The individual evaluation helps to guide board members in a process of reflection. The questions involved help to assess their ability and willingness to help in addition to the overall understanding and knowledge of policies, actions and mission of the organization.
Individual evaluations can be a difficult process. Often, boards do not conduct the evaluation until there is a crisis point in the organization and the board is forced to make a cultural change. In these cases, asking a board member to evaluate their personal skills, knowledge, ability and willingness to contribute can seem like an accusation. Evaluations in this environment can hinder the forward momentum of an organization, hurt the feelings of active board members, and threaten to derail the work you are doing.
We recommend that individual and team evaluations happen on an annual basis – in good times and in bad – and be introduced with building language. Building language connects individuals in a common cause to create a greater good. Using phrases like “we are doing this evaluation in order to better understand where we stand, who we are and how we can recruit board members in order to grow our strengths,” will help to create buy-in. It is not about replacing existing board members, but instead a tool to help recruit valuable skills and characteristics through the board nomination process.
Review of the evaluations and follow-through in the areas of weakness and opportunity are vital to the success of the exercise. It does an organization no good to just take the survey, in fact it can do more harm than good given the possible sensitivities of your board members. The information gleaned from the surveys must be implemented in some form and we recommend you have an ad-hoc committee, or better yet, your board development/nominating committee, review the surveys and report back to the board the areas of need brought up through the evaluation process. For example, our survey asks questions about basic best practices policies your organization should have and your board should have knowledge of including conflict of interest, board job descriptions, by-laws and board materials. If a majority of your board cannot respond with certainty that they either know of or are familiar with such policies, this is an opportunity for your organization to update, create or remind them, thus fulfilling an important responsibility of all boards.
With anything, the individual and team evaluations we propose cannot be done in a vacuum and should be a component of an overall board development regime. This guide is a simple way of beginning the process as are our follow-up webinars and individual board trainings, but beyond the retreats and big lifts, board development is a continuing effort that must be undertaken that is why we recommend you create a board development committee which is tasked with ongoing information sharing and organizational reflection at every board meeting.