The most effective boards engage in a continual process of self-assessment, that is, an evaluation of their performance. The assessment focuses on how you function as a board, not how you operate as a foundation. For some, this may be familiar thinking; for others, a board assessment provides a framework to think about how the board can drive the foundation toward excellence.
For a self-assessment to work, the board must be being willing to set aside time to do the review, ask the questions that will lead to real change, and carefully consider the responses. Decide ahead of time if the board is ready to do this work.
The aim of a self-assessment is to draw out honest answers, which, in turn, will stimulate conversation about the board’s performance. Common ways of doing this are as follows:
- A survey questionnaire that covers one or more topics—The board may want to use an externally developed survey, such as Exponent Philanthropy’s Practical Board Self-Assessment, to control costs and staff time, avoid recreating the wheel, ensure confidentiality or anonymity of responses, and gain an outside perspective. The foundation also may choose to create and conduct its own survey.
- A peer review process—In such a process, each board member completes a questionnaire that evaluates fellow board members. Once the questionnaires are complete, the board chair meets individually with each board member to share the results. Experience tells us that this process may be even more effective using an objective outsider to facilitate, but it is important that the board be healthy enough for this type of tool to be productive rather than divisive.
- A consultant—Hire a consultant to design and pursue a tailored process that might involve one or more strategies.
Afterward, be sure to follow up on the issues that surfaced. The best way is by holding a focused board discussion. During the discussion, prioritize the issues that are most important—and sometimes most difficult—for the board to improve or change. A board can’t work on everything at once. Create a plan for addressing the board’s priorities—those that will truly improve the way the board functions. Depending on your board, you may want to have an outside facilitator present for this discussion.