From good to great: Board evaluation

Governing, like managing, is neither an art, nor a science – it’s a practice*. An effective way to build governance skills is to reflect, assess, do differently and repeat. Board evaluation represents a process that helps board members enter this cycle. Especially if the process is well-designed.

One of the board’s core responsibilities is to build and sustain an effective governing body. To this end, conducting regular board evaluations is widely recognized as a governance best practice. It provides an opportunity to orient or remind board members of key roles and responsibilities, assess performance, celebrate success, and identify strategies for improvement.

While more boards are evaluating themselves and in some cases the performance of individual board members, not all processes succeed in moving the board from good to great performance. The process itself is often to blame, as many methods exemplify three common flaws.

Meaurement_manFirst, the majority of processes rely strictly on self-assessment surveys: board members are asked to rate the board, themselves or their peers on a variety of dimensions. While self-reporting engages board members in a reflective process, well-intentioned board members are not always prepared to constructively critique their own, or the board’s collective performance. Ratings generally tend to be overwhelmingly positive, with the odd outlier. Evaluations that solicit input from other organizational stakeholders, such as the senior management team, can provide an alternate perspective or reality check.

Secondly, few evaluation tools ask respondents to provide evidence to support their ratings. Instead, ratings generally rely on board members’ memory and perceptions of what the board has/has not done. Steve Bowman of Conscious Governance recommends conducting governance ‘audits’ alongside evaluation processes to assess if the board has in fact developed, implemented and adhered to key policies and practices (see Related Resources at end). In conducting these audits, he has often discovered a significant gap between what the board thinks, or states, it has done (e.g. maintaining up-to-date policies, conducting a risk assessment) and the evidence to support these assertions.

Last but not least, many board evaluation processes conclude with a cursory discussion of the data gathered, without determining how the board will act on the results. If commitments are not made to do differently and address performance gaps, the investment in evaluation delivers a limited return. Determining up front what the board is prepared to invest in in terms of follow up action is important, and translating actions into a board workplan or development plan is critical. Only then can the board be held accountable.

Key Design Considerations

Every evaluation process requires leadership. Rather than leaving the task to a single champion like the board chair, it can be a great project for a task force or governance committee. This group, with support from the CEO and other board members, can define the scope of, manage and promote the process.

A board’s interest in evaluation, reflection and learning is reflective of its culture. Having an honest conversation early on about the focus, potential benefits and how much time, energy and other resources to invest contributes to success.

InterviewIn addition to surveys, other data collection options warrant consideration. These include one-on-one interviews, focus groups, or group dialogues all of which enable the interviewer or facilitator to explore specific responses in more depth.

Multiple tools and templates for board evaluation are available online and they’re a great place to start. We recommend tailoring standard surveys so that they speak to a board’s specific questions and concerns – e.g. in addition to roles and responsibilities, your board may want to evaluate participation, contribution, governance structures, systems and processes.

Depending on available resources, a board may take a do-it-yourself approach or seek external support. An external consultant can help design and/or administer the process. A neutral party can assist a board in analyzing results and determining how to act on them.


What critical conversations and questions would help overcome common flaws and design an evaluation process in a way that will move the board from good to great?

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
  • What are our objectives for a board evaluation process? Do we want to focus on the board as a whole as well as individual directors?
  • What kind of process would enable us to achieve our objectives? What tools could we use to gather evidence-informed feedback?
  • How might others evaluate our performance – what measures might they use? Who else might we ask to evaluate the Board?
  • What dimensions and aspects of governance should we evaluate? What do we need to know about how we’re governing to know we can support our strategic directions and mission impact?
  • How might we assess the difference we’ve made as a board? What are other boards doing that we could learn from?
  • Acting on the results: What changes will we make – e.g. to our processes, structure, composition, focus? What do we need to ‘go to school on’ (individually or as a board)?
  • Do we really need to examine our performance… isn’t measuring organizational results and impact the most important outcome?
  • How might a board evaluation carried out by the senior management team and/or clients contribute to a deeper understanding of our performance?
  • If boards are expected to hold a big-picture perspective, how can we evaluate our role in the broader system?
  • How can we turn evaluation into a stimulating game?

The reward

We’ve seen well-designed evaluation processes deliver greater clarity around roles and responsibilities, engage board members more actively, result in more productive board meetings, and improve collaboration between the board and CEO.

Embedding evaluation into the board’s ongoing work

If your board is genuinely committed to continuous learning, in addition to engaging in an evaluation process, we recommend experimenting with the following strategies:

  • Make time at the end of board and committee meetings to reflect on one aspect of the meeting and identify ideas for improvement – e.g. agenda design, participation, decision-making process.
  • Ask each board member to identify one high and one low point experienced at the meeting.
  • Conduct mini evaluations of board contributions – e.g. after a significant organizational event, after a task force completes its work, after a major challenge has been addressed.

On the Horizon

Some boards are high performing because they have the “right people on the bus in the right seats” (Collins, 2006). Would you consider evaluating individual board members and the leadership of the board? Some boards have been doing just that, conducting peer-to-peer evaluations. Board members are asked to evaluate one another on a number of dimensions such as: “makes appropriate and meaningful contributions informed by his/her knowledge and skills”. A neutral facilitator and confidential feedback conversations are key components of effective peer-to-peer evaluation processes.

The executive or governance committee might use the results of such an evaluation to inform decisions about renewing appointments and officer selection. Early adopters are continuing to experiment with and refine this evaluative approach to move their boards from good to great.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo

*Henry Mintzberg made this point in his book “Managing”.

Recommended resources and references

35 Questions that will transform your board. Society for Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit World Volume 24, Number 3, May/June 2006.

Board Evaluation: Creating Strategic Performance and Effectiveness (Board Guru Handbook) by Tracy E. Houston, 2012.

Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A monograph to Accompany Good to Great. Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2006.

“How Good is our Board?” How Board Evaluations Can Improve Governance. Tim Plumptre, Institute On Governance, 2006.

Individual director evaluations: The next step in boardroom effectiveness. Jay A. Conger and Edward Lawlor III. Ivey, 2003.

Managing. Henry Mintzberg, Barrett-Koehler Publishers. 2011.

The Problem with board evaluations. Steve Bowman, Conscious Governance Online, 2008.

CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS: inquiry, insight, impact


Non-profit boards come in three flavours: those that are neutral, passively sitting on the sidelines cheering the organization on; those that do more harm than good, damaging an organization through dysfunction or conflict; and those that take the organization to the next level, contributing vision and value. Boards, with all their strengths and flaws, will continue to be with us as they are legally mandated to oversee and be accountable for organizational performance.

Boards exist in a state of dynamic tension. How could they not – when they bring together individual board members from different perspectives, backgrounds and sectors; and then ask them to meet the often conflicting expectations of funders, donors, clients, legislators, staff and community?

In the last few decades academics, consultants and CEOs have weighed in on the need to enhance the effectiveness of the board’s work and the quality of board members. During this period the nature and focus of the board’s work has changed and expectations have grown. In the past, boards focused internally on establishing and growing an organization. Boards today are expected to act as stewards, direction-setters, champions, and to serve as the accountability body. The board is also expected to connect the organization to various communities and to be aware of the broader system and the organization’s contribution within that system.

Today’s board members are diverse, intelligent and passionate. We argue that ‘critical conversations’ can be used to access and engage diverse talents within the boardroom and assist the board in fulfilling its multi-faceted role.

Leading strategist Henry Mintzberg, when asked about the value of boards, likened them to “bumblebees buzzing around the heads of CEOs” (Governance as Leadership, p. 28). CEOs must attend to the buzzing… and focusing the buzz on critical topics improves the conversation.

Critical Conversations

The power of conversation should not be under-estimated as a vehicle through which boards can reach sound decisions, add value, and exercise leadership.

In their book Governance as Leadership, Chait, Ryan and Taylor introduced the ‘fiduciary’, ‘strategic’ and ‘generative’ as three modes of governance that boards must engage in to fulfil their various roles and responsibilities. These modes begin to frame critical conversations.

In the fiduciary mode (oversight), the board focuses on the stewardship of assets – e.g. the efficient use of resources, fiscal accountability, risk management and the operational oversight.

In the strategic mode (foresight), the board acts as strategist in partnership with senior staff. In this mode the board thinks and acts strategically – e.g. setting direction and planning for the future. This involves monitoring the changing environment, and considering the implications for the organization.

The generative mode (insight) is about sense-making, framing and reframing problems, questioning assumptions and creative thinking.

Many boards tend to focus their discussions at the fiduciary and strategic levels, but in today’s volatile and uncertain environment, employing all three modes is crucial to helping the board and organization understand and respond to complex issues.

conversationFocused inquiry driven by powerful questions engages the three modes, accesses diversity of thinking and uncovers new strategies to solve persistent problems. One non-profit CEO described the value of one board member’s persistent, insightful questions as causing her to “sharpen her pencil” and arrive better prepared for board meetings.

This blog series is designed to orient board members and senior leaders to critical topics that are not always addressed during regular board meetings. The topics we have selected are informed by powerful conversations we have facilitated with different clients over the years. These topics are ‘critical’ because they have implications for organizational impact and sustainability, and support the board in fulfilling its leadership and stewardship roles.

Engaging in these conversations, individual board members develop the knowledge and skills to serve as ambassadors, enhance their generative thinking capacity, and acquire a clearer line of sight between their governance work and mission results.

At the organizational level the conversations generate more nuanced understanding of external trends and forces, implications and opportunities; new insights into problems and assumptions; and innovative strategies. An organization’s ability to continuously adapt and evolve leads to greater resilience and mission impact. Finally, a board that makes a difference attracts and retains quality, committed board members.

The Series

“Critical Conversations in the Boardroom” provides a framework for designing meaningful conversations that will add value to an organization. In each post we present the context and rationale for each topic, identify sample fiduciary, strategic and generative questions boards can use to design powerful and engaging conversations as well as related resources (e.g. articles, books and tools).

Question types

Questions fuel conversations, and developing powerful questions is a craft. Powerful questions are simple, clear, thought-provoking, energize a group, surface assumptions, and expand possibilities (Brown et al, 2002). They invite inquiry and discovery and require a group to engage ‘both/and’ thinking. They engage the board in discussions that are meaningful on multiple levels, engaging heads and hearts.

In some cases, the conversations lead to decisions, while in other cases, the conversation is an end in itself. The purpose may be to engage different perspectives and expand collective understanding. The chart below highlights how each mode can be accessed through different kinds of questions.

Fiduciary oversight mode

Strategic foresight mode

Generative insight mode

Questions focus on

  • Exploring the facts… there may be a financial or sustainability dimension
  • Monitoring of performance or compliance
  • Developing, reviewing or assessing adherence to policies
Questions focus on

  • Developing strategies to leverage internal strengths or address weaknesses
  • Identifying and analyzing the implications of changes in the external environment
  • Determining how to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities
Questions focus on

  • Clearly defining and making sense of a problem
  • Surfacing and questioning assumptions
  • Crafting both/and solutions to complex problems


Making Time for Critical Conversations

We know board agendas are often jam-packed leaving limited time for in-depth discussion. Some boards make time for conversations that matter by using a ‘consent agenda’ to package and receive regular reports in one motion. Consent agenda items are distributed to board members as part of the board package for review, and are not discussed during the meetings, unless the board requests a discussion. Two articles below describe consent agendas and considerations for using them.

We hope you will consider the topics we’ve outlined and make time for critical conversations. The sample questions we will be providing can be adapted to your own situation and build your board’s fiduciary, strategic and generative thinking capacity. We can hear the bumblebees buzzing.

Post 1: “To give or not to give” is not THE question: Boards and fundraising

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended Reading

Consent agenda. David Renz, A Board Resource Tool from the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor. Wiley. 2004.

Governance as leadership: an interview with Richard P. Chait. Great Boards, Summer 2005. Bader & Associates Governance Consultants.

Moments of Impact – How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Simon &Schuster 2014.

On Dialogue. David Bohm. Routledge, 2nd edition, 2004.

Strategic questioning: engaging people’s best thinking. Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Eric Vogt and Nancy Margulies. The Systems Thinker. Vol. 13, No. 9. November 2002.

The consent agenda: A tool for improving governance. BoardSource 2006.

“To Give or not to Give” is not THE Question: Boards and fundraising

As stewards responsible for an organization’s financial sustainability, the board’s contribution to fundraising is a critical conversation. The board has a variety of roles to play in relation to fundraising, and we pose fiduciary, strategic and generative questions (to learn more about these, see our first post in the CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS series) to stimulate the board’s understanding of this responsibility.

moneybagsHistorically many non-profit organizations recruited board members for their ability to “give or get” money. As organizations matured and their funding sources stabilized, organizations started to recruit board members for their talent, time and diverse perspectives, including service users who may not be in a position to give substantial amounts. Expectations that board members make a personal contribution diminished for government funded organizations. Some board members believe they contribute their time and talent in lieu of a financial gift.

Today, when government funding doesn’t cover program and operational costs, the expectation that board members contribute financially has been revived. Foundations and major donors look at board giving rates as an indication that the organization’s leadership is confident and fully invested in the work being done.

According to a recent US survey by BoardSource, approximately 68% of non-profit organizations have articulated a “board giving” policy. Board giving policies often include an expectation that each member contributes an amount they consider generous or personally meaningful – i.e. each according to their means. Many boards aim for 100% participation rates and report their participation rates to funders. A survey conducted by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative in 2013 found that board giving had increased in 47% of the organizations surveyed.

In addition to making personal contributions, boards have other roles to play in supporting organizational fundraising efforts – e.g. events, direct mail and capital campaigns, major gifts and bequests, and corporate sponsorships. Roles include attending fundraising events and meeting with key funders. Board members can more easily set aside time to lend their support at one or more events during the year if staff maintain a calendar of events. When it comes to gifts and bequests, with appropriate tools and support, board members can promote these options in their communities.

Donor_callPenelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research has investigated why donors give. One practice she recommends to boards is a “1-minute thank-you call”. Board members follow up on recent donations with a very brief phone call to thank the donor on behalf of the organization. Although no additional request for donations is made, donors who receive a simple thank-you from a senior volunteer tend to make another gift sooner than they might otherwise have done, and the size of their subsequent gifts tends to increase.

Board members’ personal and professional networks are a vital resource in an organization’s fundraising efforts. Inviting members of their networks to fundraising events has long been an expectation of board members. Today, board members’ networks can also be helpful for an organization that is seeking to establish corporate sponsorships and partnerships. When an organization embarks on this kind of fundraising strategy, sharing who you know expands the opportunity pool.

Board members with skills in fundraising and communications can be key assets on a board. Not only can they provide an outside perspective to staff, they can educate fellow board members about fundamentals of fundraising. Strategic recruitment of board members is one way for a board to access these skills.

Critical Conversations

We know that every board is at a different stage when it comes to involvement in fundraising. The questions below are presented as possible topics for the board to explore through dialogue. We recommend a board set aside approximately 30-60 minutes to explore several questions.

Distributing an article related to the topic in advance can be useful in priming board members for the conversation – we’ve identified some recommended articles and books below. The questions in each mode engage the board in a different kind of thinking, so consider mixing and matching to engage the board in a substantive dialogue.

Fiduciary Questions Strategic Questions Generative Questions
  • What funding model(s) does our organization use? (see related resource below, “Ten Non-profit Funding Models”)
  • Are our fundraising vehicles – e.g. events, direct mail, capital campaigns – delivering a positive return on investment?
  • What’s our board giving policy? Where are we in relation to our targets?
  • Which board members need to be involved in which funding-related events? What role should they play?
  • Who (i.e. people, corporations, associations) are we connected with that might support our organization in some way? E.g. as corporate sponsors, material resources?
  • What other sources of funding might we pursue? What role might the board play in growing this type of funding?
  • How might we inspire people to give us money without asking them directly?
  • What assumptions do we each have about fundraising… and how do these limit our collective success?
  • How might a person with limited money but extensive networks help us access substantial funds?

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Related resources

  1. Board members and the art of saying thanks. Interview with Penelope Burk by Jay Blossom. IN TRUST. Summer 2013.
  2. Finding Your Funding Model, by Peter Kim, Gail Perreault, &William Foster. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2011.
  3. Nonprofit Fundraising Study – Covering charitable receipts at Nonprofit organizations in the United States and Canada in 2013. Nonprofit Research Collaborative, March 2014.
  4. Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, by William Landes Foster, Peter Kim, & Barbara Christiansen.Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2009.
  5. The Power of a Case for Support. Nell Edgington, Social Velocity.