The purpose of this guidebook has been to a) help you understand some of the issues that challenge the effectiveness of nonprofit boards, b) offer some explanations as to why they exist, and c) provide guidance on how to manage them so as to improve the effectiveness of the governance function.
The book, and the Board Check-Up research project of which it is a part, is derived from the idea of health checkups in medicine. The social science that underlies the research is that of the theory of organizational change. Simply put, by surfacing issues (symptoms) in the governance process, the stage is set for potential change in governance practices (treatment). However, as anyone involved in nonprofit organizations and governance knows, making change is easier said than done. In fact, our early research results that track the impact of Board Check-Up show that, while the majority of boards do report making changes in governance practices in each of the dimensions assessed in the Board Check-Up not all boards do so and some kinds of changes are made more often than others (e.g., issues related to board meetings are made more frequent than changes in board culture and leadership) (see Harrison and Murray, forthcoming). For this reason, we recommend boards take the Board Check-Up on a regular basis and use it as an opportunity to delve deeper into discussions of the symptoms and why they exist in the board (diagnoses), and what can be done about them (treatment). Results from our research of the change process show the Board Check-Up fills gaps in board leadership and technical capacity to self-assess performance (Harrison, 2014).
In addition to providing a model, theory and online tool for deciding change, we’ve also provided links to additional resources that may be useful when deciding what practices need to change. While resources are organized by country, many provide useful guidance and tools that apply across countries. By no means do we provide an exhaustive review of the websites and literature on governance effectiveness in this book. Please consider additional sources and adopt those that seem to be a good fit for your board and organization.
The final section of these Guidelines is directed primarily at those who are using them to self-assess board performance as part of an organization registered to take the Board Check-Up at www.boardcheckup.com or who are part of a course on nonprofit governance of which the Board Check-Up is a learning activity. It describes ways in which the results of the Board Check-Up can be used to promote dialogue and decisions regarding needed changes in governance practices.
The results of the Board Check-Up will give you some ideas about possible difficulties that could be keeping your board from performing at its best. How these results are used will determine how valuable they might be in helping to make changes that will make the governance function of your organization more effective. Here are some suggestions for getting the most from the self-assessment process.
As a general rule, it is desirable to take action on the results of the questionnaire as quickly as possible after it is completed, while the process is still fresh in everyone’s minds. If possible, create a small “Board Self-Assessment Implementation Task Force” to take the lead in this final phase. Alternatively, an existing board committee such as a Governance or Executive Committee could take on this job.
This committee should choose a chair—possibly the person who acted as Board Check-Up Coordinator.
It should review the findings and discuss the best way to present them to the board as a whole.
A special board meeting, or retreat, should be organized to review the findings. If possible, all those who were originally asked to participate should be invited, e.g., in addition to board members, ask top managers, senior volunteers, etc.
The special board meeting or retreat should proceed as follows:
If the group is large enough, consider breaking into smaller groups to discuss the following questions, otherwise pose them in a plenary format:
What positive, future-oriented changes might be made to end the problems?
For each of the top priority issues, why do they exist? (The meeting should be reminded that the reasons might not always be simple. For example, if there is strong agreement that board meetings are too long, this could be for many reasons: a failure to establish and enforce time limits for agenda items, board members being unprepared, poorly prepared committee reports, too much time spent on routine leaving important policy issues until late in the meeting, etc.)
What are the issues that most need working on in terms of importance and immediacy?
Discuss the significance of the results obtained in each of the topic areas covered in this Final Report.
Results for each of the nine distinct elements of board effectiveness
The 10 issues that might be the most challenging
The 10 things we do best
Percentage of “Not Sure”
The Chair of the meeting should begin by reviewing the reasons for engaging in this self-assessment exercise and go on to make the following points:
When there is a strong consensus that certain issues are real problems it is important not to jump to conclusions about why they exist or what should be done about them. Instead, they should be carefully analyzed. We therefore recommend that this special board meeting not be used to make decisions but only to seek consensus on issues and identify possible solutions. The Task Force would promise to take this input and return later with well-thought-out formal recommendations for change, if needed.
It is possible that some problems, on further discussion, will be found to be simply the result of lack of knowledge or experience on the part of some participants. These can be corrected by better communications.
The discussion should not take the form of blaming anyone for any of the issues identified.
The Implementation Task Force should take the input provided at the special board meeting and use it to prepare a series of recommendations for change along with supporting arguments for them. These would be brought to a formal meeting of the board for discussion and approval.
Finally, responsibility for tracking the outcomes of these changes should be allocated to a person or committee who will report at the end of a year on the degree of improvement in the governance process. This should signal the beginning of a process of board self-evaluation that occurs every year.
Continuing and long-lasting effectiveness in governance practices are best achieved if the board commits itself to assessing its performance on a regular and long-term basis. Here are three options for you follow to ensure this kind of long term success:
- Be part of cutting-edge research: This guidebook is part of a larger research study of nonprofit board effectiveness. Participants gain access to free online tools and resources produced from the research on the state of nonprofit board effectiveness in nonprofit organizations around the world. If you have taken the Board Check-Up online (www.boardcheckup.com), then you are a participant in this research. If you haven’t, then consider registering for the University at Albany, SUNY sponsored research project online through the website or contact Professor Yvonne Harrison firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Take an interactive nonprofit governance course for free or credit: In January 2015, Professor Harrison opens her University at Albany, SUNY Nonprofit Governance course to the public as part of the Open SUNY strategy to increase access to education through online learning. Coursera’s online teaching platform hosts the course and interactive instructional strategies are incorporated to teach course concepts, which include main concepts in this and other nonprofit governance books. Through the course learning activities, participants receive guided instruction on board performance assessment. Along with faculty and specialized educational technology support, peer learning groups support and evaluate teaching and learning in the online environment.
- Join a peer learning group to develop and help grow your board and the field of nonprofit leadership. Participants in the Board Check-Up research and Nonprofit Governance course will be invited to join various nonprofit leadership peer learning groups on topics of importance to participants. These groups will be facilitated by faculty, nonprofit leaders, and students in the University at Albany and SUNY Open community.