Digging Deeper with Chorus America's Self-Evaluation Tool

Is your choral organization running like a well-oiled machine or in fits and starts? Chorus America’s Online Chorus Self-Evaluation Tool (SET) can help you answer that question.

The evaluation can be completed by just the board, the entire board and staff, or a selected subset. Your organization can also choose to complete only certain sections of the SET for a more targeted assessment.

Last year Chorus America piloted the tool with 12 choruses in the DC area and afterward Chorus America’s president and CEO Ann Meier Baker led discussions with five of those organizations. The Fairfax Choral Society, which includes a 120-member volunteer adult choir and six children and youth choirs, was one of the choruses that participated. The Choral Society’s board of 12 is divided equally between singers, parents of young singers, and community members.

The opportunity for board members to evaluate their structure and work came at a good time, Christi Esterly Schwarten, executive director, says. “Our organization has grown a lot very, very quickly. The programming grew, the artistic staff grew, but the other things about the organization hadn’t grown up yet.”

The self-evaluation process identified a “big weakness” in the organization’s governance structures, Schwarten says. The organization found it needed a review of its bylaws, a better way to educate the board about its roles and responsibilities, and a clearer process for doing performance evaluations of staff. “Other than saying, ‘we love our staff,’ there were no performance requirements, no system for dealing with salaries—none of that,” Schwarten says. “Now, slowly but surely, we are implementing things.”

Recently, the governance committee of the board redid the bylaws and a new staff performance evaluation system is being put in place. “The Self-Evaluation Tool helped the board members see what best practices were for an organization,” Schwarten says. “The board members didn’t agree with all of them. They decided they were not interested in instituting term limits for board members, for example. But they saw that it was something that a lot of organizations do and something they needed to consider.”

Overall, Schwarten says she has been gratified by how much the board members have taken what they discovered to heart. “This process worked because they were telling themselves where they were lacking,” Schwarten says. “It wasn’t the staff or anyone else telling them. It was important for the board to do this themselves.”

Cantate Chamber Singers, a 30-plus-member ensemble based in Bethesda, Maryland, also participated in the pilot of the Chorus Self-Evaluation Tool. The organization was eager to take a look at its functions in advance of the 2015 retirement of its executive director, Judy Guenther and operations manager, Wayne Guenther. “That is a huge, huge shift for the organization,” says board chair Deborah Sternberg.

The biggest takeaway from the SET was the need for more in-depth education for board members. “We found there was a need to discuss the way the board works,” Sternberg says. “Some people had a background in the nonprofit world or board experience, but some of us did not. It was like, ‘Oh wait, I should know this, but I don’t…yet.’ And it was the responsibility of the chair and vice-chair to bring that information to our people.”

The self-evaluation also revealed the need for better ways to measure the group’s reach and impact in the community. “We are very happy about how certain things run: the operation of the organization, the music quality of the group, our niche in the DC area,” executive director Judy Guenther says. “But if we want to grow our audience, we need to know who is in our audience.”

Guenther hopes the group will make self-evaluation a regular practice, at least every two or three years. “I think it is a good way to bring our group together to focus on the important things we need to focus on,” she says.

Learn more about Chorus America's Online Self-Evaluation Tool.

For more on board self-evaluation, click here.

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