Self-Assessment for Nonprofit Governing Boards, User's Guide and Questionnaire

In October 2001, a statewide board I serve on for a nonprofit organization participated in a one-day retreat with staff. We just hired a new executive director and spent about a year discussing new ventures, additional focal points and new membership on the board. We decided it was time for a working retreat. We hired a facilitator, set a date, time, and place with commitment from the board and the staff. Most of the board showed up; all the staff including our new ED was present. The retreat was good, very good. We reached a point describing the future as inspirational and aspirational. I wish I had read this small user's guide before the session — we might have also reached attainable goals as well.

This guide and the questionnaire, which is the heart of the self-assessment and consists of twenty pages, form a kit to be used by boards only. It is not aimed at a board-staff retreat. The kit is available in English, Australian English, and Russian.

The edition is a revised version of an earlier model from 1995. The goals of the guide are to show the benefits of a self-assessment, how to conduct a self-assessment and how to use the results. The keys to a successful self-assessment are planning and commitment as a board, hiring an experienced facilitator, developing a partnership between the board chair, the CEO and the facilitator, and to have a facilitator who is familiar with the nonprofit's governance and mission. The guide gives excellent instructions in preparing for the self-assessment with sample letters to be sent to the board members after agreement to hold a self-assessment retreat, a cover letter for the questionnaire, a time table and a sample agenda.

The guide sets ten steps for conducting the self-assessment process:

  • Assess the readiness of the board for such an activity.
  • Gain board commitment; secure a resolution of consensus by the board for the event.
  • Appoint a steering committee; there is a checklist for the committee to follow including engaging the facilitator.
  • Select the facilitator.
  • Set a date for the 1-1/2 days retreat.
  • Distribute the twenty-page questionnaire to the board members with a date for returns. NCNB maintains a copyright on the questionnaire and printing them from one book is a violation of that copyright. Collect the responses. Copies of the questionnaire may be purchased.
  • Analyze and interpret the data from the questionnaires (that are anonymous); the agreement with the facilitator may include this role.
  • Set the retreat agenda based on the sample in the guide but really aimed by the data and information from the questionnaires.
  • Hold the retreat, check expectations, seek outcomes, use the data and set specific strategies.
  • Implement the action plan; if follow-up is needed, seek technical assistance. The value of the retreat is in the follow-through.

The questionnaire takes from thirty to sixty minutes to complete. There are ten broad questions based on "The 10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit boards" by Richard T. Ingram, published by NCNB. The answers to the questions are in sets of two "Not Satisfied," two "Satisfied," and a "Not Sure" and a "Not Applicable."

The ten responsibilities of a board that are questioned are:

  • Understanding the current mission statement; is it appropriate for the future?
  • Strategic planning; what is the NPOs' market, how will the organization evolve in the next three to five years?
  • Monitoring the organization's programs and services; what are the strengths and weaknesses and what does the board know about current programs?
  • Ensuring adequate financial resources; what is the fund raising strategy and what is the board's role?
  • Providing effective fiscal oversight; are there appropriate financial controls and risk management and how does the board know about them?
  • Reviewing the CEO; is there a clear job description and is there a process for evaluating her/his work?
  • Understanding the relationship between the board and staff; are there defined roles, human resources policies and quality relationships?
  • Developing a public image; what is the board's role to spread the good news of the organization and who speaks for the organization?
  • Selecting and orientating new board members; is there an effective process, is there diversity, are the necessary skills and resources on the board?
  • Is the board organized to operate in an effective and efficient way?

There are several open-ended questions concerning the feelings of the individual board members about the future, what can be improved, and what suggestions can be made.

The guide concludes with the method of administering the questionnaires so that they are the basis of the retreat discussions and with notes for the facilitator. There is a participant's evaluation to be analyzed by the facilitator and shared with the board president and CEO.

Now what I was missing in the retreat mentioned at the beginning of this review is actualization of an articulated strategy and a plan for the future. If I had this guide before that retreat I would have pushed for that. Instead it will come up at the next board meeting.

One weakness in the guide is a discussion about a budget for this process, buying the material, hiring a facilitator, renting space and having food and drinks available. The other weakness is there is little guidance about an additional half-day with a history of the organization. In my experience that can be an exciting part of the retreat and set a tone of past into the future. Nevertheless, the Self-Assessment for Nonprofit Governing is a very helpful and thoughtful guide. Lead on.

Donald A. Griesmann, Esq.
Attorney/Volunteer/Writer