Boards, Measure Thyselves!

The most effective boards measure their own performance. Governance expert Nancy Axelrod shares her insights into self-evaluation for your organization.

Individuals learn best when they get feedback on their performance. Boards are no different. A board self-evaluation, also referred to as a self-assessment, is a structured way to step back from the routine of day-to-day business and get a clearer picture of how you’re doing as a governing body.

DC-based governance consultant Nancy Axelrod has walked a number of boards through the process and has found that self-evaluation serves several useful purposes. One is to help board members understand that their role differs from that of the music director or other staff—even if, as is the case for many choruses, the board handles tasks that would be staff responsibilities at a larger organization. “Being on a board is a big leap from what most people do in their day jobs,” Axelrod says, “where they may be used to managing, doing, running things, and making decisions in which the entire group does not share equal power.”

The natural tendency, regardless of the size of an organization, is for board members to dive into what Axelrod calls the “administrivia” of day-to-day operations. While there’s nothing wrong with board members functioning in this capacity when little or no staff warrants this tactical role, it’s important that they also be able to shift perspective to provide governance and organizational leadership. A board self-evaluation asks, Is this board focusing its time on the things that matter most to the viability and success of our organization? “It’s like a refresher course,” Axelrod says, “and a nice way to remind the board of what its responsibilities really are.”

A self-evaluation is also an opportunity for board members to look at how well they are meeting organizational goals and how well they are working together as a group. “You can find out what the board thinks are the signs and metrics of an effective board,” Axelrod says. “Are the culture and group dynamics working right? Are there patterns of interaction that could be improved?”

"A self-evaluation is like a refresher course and a nice way to remind the board of what its responsibilities really are." - Nancy Axelrod

Types of Self-Evaluations:

Self-evaluations run the gamut, Axelrod says, from the simple to the comprehensive. “Certainly one size does not fit all,” she says. “Whatever you do should be customized. And more important than the tool you use is being clear about why you are doing it and what you plan to do with the results.”

Meeting Evaluations. One simple form of assessment is to reflect on your meeting process, either verbally at the end of the meeting or through a short written or electronic questionnaire. International consultant Glenn Tecker suggests asking just a few simple questions:

  • Did we talk about the right things?
  • Did we talk at the right level (at the governance level rather than the operations level)?
  • How did we treat one another? Were we respectful? Were there a lot of dominant voices and a lot of people saying nothing?
  • What will we do differently as a result of our discussions here?

One board that Axelrod worked with designated a member to serve as a “process observer” at each meeting. “In the last five minutes of the meeting, they would turn to that person and say, ‘How did we do? Did we invite different points of view? Did we cover the right things? Did we stay on topic?’ People were very respectful and they commented honestly.”

Critical Incident Discussion. Taking time to reflect after a board has gone through a rough patch also can serve as an important self-evaluation. “I always say that a crisis or a breakdown is a terrible thing to waste,” Axelrod says. “There is an opportunity there to learn about how the board performs.”

Axelrod worked with a board that had done what it thought was the perfect search for a new executive director. Then the new leader left within a year. Before leaping into another search, the board took time to reflect: Are there governance implications? Did this person not work out because we were so relieved that the search was over that we let go of the reins? Did we not provide a good transition process? Did we not do due diligence in vetting this person to see how his style aligned with ours?

“It was an opportunity to get formal feedback,” Axelrod says. “It’s important that the board chair or somebody on the board facilitate this discussion without bringing with them any personal baggage.”

Individual Meetings with Board Members. Periodic face-to-face meetings with board members are another effective form of self-evaluation. Some board chairs or vice-chairs schedule such meetings with new board members during or after their first year of service. Possible questions to explore are:

  • How satisfied am I (the board member) that I:
    • Understand the organizations’s mission?
    • Have a good working relationship with other board members and the chief executive?
    • Read and understand the organization’s financial statements?
    • Prepare for and participate at board and committee meetings?
  • In what ways, if any, can I do more as a board member to add value in advancing the organization and the work of the board?
  • What, if anything, can be done to further enhance my personal satisfaction as an individual board member?

Another key time to gather feedback is when a board member has finished her or his term or is leaving the board for some other reason. “People are often honored to be asked about their service and they are often more candid at that point,” Axelrod says. In her “exit interviews” with outgoing board members, she always asks: What do you wish you had known when you joined that would have helped you be more effective? What advice do you have for the new board members? What was the most satisfying part of your board service? What do you wish had been more satisfying?

Targeted Evaluation. A targeted evaluation might take one area of concern for your board and focus on that. “The focus could be on board composition, or fundraising, or committee structure, or how well do we conduct meetings,” Axelrod says. “It can be very valuable to dig more deeply into one of these areas and assess your board’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Formal Board Self-Evaluation. Axelrod says a formal self-evaluation requires an effective questionnaire for eliciting information from the board, a process that allows board members to be candid without fear of awkwardness or of compromising themselves, and a report that summarizes the board’s responses.

A number of organizations provide tools for doing this type of comprehensive board evaluation.

    • Board Source’s Board Self-Assessment gathers feedback from individual board members and measures the collective performance of the board. The survey covers nine areas of board responsibility: mission, strategy, funding and public image, board composition, program oversight, financial oversight, CEO oversight, board structure, and board meetings. Visit boardsource.org for more information.
Digging Deeper with Chorus America’s Self-Evaluation Tool
Read about other chorus’s experiences with this program and learn more about how to sign up.
    • Chorus America’s Online Chorus Self-Evaluation Tool has been customized for choral organizations, which can have varying numbers of singers and staff. It encourages board members to work together to assess their organization’s effectiveness in different areas of nonprofit management and to take steps to strengthen those areas that fall short of best practices. Selected staff members can also complete the online questionnaire. Areas covered in the Chorus America tool include: organizational purpose–mission and vision, programs and evaluation, governance, planning, fundraising, financial stability and transparency, external communications–marketing and public relations, internal communications and human resources, and operations and facilities. 

For a fee Board Source and Chorus America will tabulate survey results and can also provide an experienced facilitator to work with a board to understand the outcome and map a plan for making improvements.

"Self-evaluation is not a report card for the board. It is a very practical way to give your board a sense of power in looking at how it's performing."

Words to the Wise

Whatever method of board self-evaluation you choose, Axelrod offers these recommendations:

Make sure the self-evaluation is board driven, not staff driven. “It should have the blessing, enthusiasm, and interest of the board,” Axelrod says. “Ideally it should be a small planning group of the board that selects an instrument and figures out how it could be done.”

Ask the right questions. The questions need to relate to the expectations of the roles and responsibilities board members have. “It is really not fair to evaluate people against criteria that don’t represent mutual expectations,” Axelrod says. “It has to sync with what board members are expected to do, the kind of organization you are, and the size and scope of your board.”

Make it safe and confidential. You will get more illuminating responses if you don’t ask for names and if a third party summarizes the results and extracts the patterns. “When I am looking at results, if there is a personal attack, I don’t want to embarrass people. If a response shows personal bias against somebody and it doesn’t represent a pattern, I may not include that in the summary of results.”

Look at both your board’s strengths and challenges. Evaluations often are seen as remedial, rather than looking at strengths, opportunities for improvement, and things that are working well. “Self-evaluation is not a report card for the board,” Axelrod says. “It is a very practical way to give your board a sense of power in looking at how it’s performing. The questions should be framed in a way that invite the board to comment on things that are working well, as well as things that can be improved.”

Do something with the results. “It is disrespectful to ask people to complete a survey or participate in a self-evaluation and then do nothing with the results,” Axelrod says. “It makes people very reluctant to fill out yet another survey. Don’t do an assessment if you are just doing it for good practice.”

Avoid evaluation or survey fatigue. The good news is that more boards are doing self-evaluation, Axelrod says. But if it’s done in the same manner every year, it can become a formulaic checklist. “Board members, like a lot of the American public, are under-engaged and over-surveyed. They suffer from survey fatigue,” she says. “If you do your self- evaluation annually, you may want to change it up a little from year to year.”


This article is drawn from a presentation by governance expert Nancy Axelrod at Chorus America’s 2014 Conference in Washington DC, and a follow up interview. It appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Voice.

Axelrod is a frequent speaker at leadership forums dedicated to governance, accountability, and board development. She provides customized services to associations, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations in board development, leadership transitions, and meeting facilitation. Learn more at nancyaxelrod.com.

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.

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