Nonprofit boards typically are comprised of many successful
leaders from for-profit or related entities. This isn’t surprising since these
individuals often are best suited to help organizations leverage wealth and
What is somewhat surprising, however, is that although high
levels of efficiencies and accomplishment are considered trademarks of
for-profit business, many for-profit leaders do not bring a culture of
strategic planning and structured accountability with them when they join a
Since the for-profit and nonprofit sectors have distinct
cultures, this may be understandable. Nevertheless, this issue deserves
scrutiny in order to draw upon the strengths of both cultures and maximize
organizations’ contributions to their communities.
Lester Salamon, author of The State of Nonprofit America,
paints a rather dark picture of the quality of many nonprofit boards. A modest
study by the University of Notre Dame’s Nonprofit Professional Development unit
of the Mendoza College of Business supports Salamon’s assessment (see “Data
Supports Need for Strengthening Development, Education of Nonprofit Boards”
In light of these trends, this article is an invitation for
trustees to develop policies of self-assessment for the whole board and for all
Trustees routinely support assessment and professional
development activities within their organizations.
They are accustomed to assessing the functioning of programs
and finances through specific reviews, operational audits, CEO evaluations,
regular budget reports, and formal program evaluations. They also support staff
development through policies that encourage conference attendance, membership
in associations like the Alliance for Children and Families, personal
enrichment programs, and good supervision.
However, nonprofit boards too seldom apply these evaluative
and developmental activities to themselves, whether in assessing the quality of
their group decision making, or with respect to their individual deportment,
contribution, and participation.
Board assessment begins, as all assessments must, with a
statement of expectations and goals. These should be spelled out in the board’s
procedural manual, which outlines the overall responsibilities of the board,
and in a job description statement, which details what’s expected of individual
directors. Boards should assess and review the key functions described in these
documents on an annual basis.
What follows is a list of common priority roles and
responsibilities, along with key questions designed to guide the interrogative
embody and enact trusteeship of civic purpose
(Do we add value?);
articulate the organization’s vision, mission,
values, and goals (Are we aligned in the enterprise’s purpose?);
make and oversee policy (Do we make and execute
select and evaluate the CEO (Do we support the
development of leadership and management for the organization?);
assure financial wellness and integrity (Are we
in balance or have a surplus? Why or why not?); and
introduce strategic planning, change, and
entrepreneurship (Are we committed to improvements and completely new
Similarly, the board needs to regularly evaluate each
member. This process can begin with a self-assessment and then move to a collective
discussion. Think of it as akin to college and professional athletes watching
game films. Each player begins with a self-commentary, and then other players
contribute suggestions for the good of the team.
Both types of assessments are vital to strong governance.
First, the assessment itself leads to improved performance. Second, and more
subtly, the awareness that individual and group functioning will be assessed
leads to better quality as the board carries out its business.
Related to, and often taking place soon after the board
assessment is complete, is board development.
Often a board will conclude its internal assessment with the
design and implementation of a development plan for itself. This can involve a
half-day event designed to improve areas of weaknesses that were identified
during the assessment process. There should be a retreat event like this every
Similarly, for trustees, there should be individual
development activities around board position and roles. An example plan may
involve letting each trustee select something of professional interest to
research or pursue academically, and then asking each trustee to report his or
her findings. The report empowers all trustees to gain increased knowledge and
competency in support of the organization’s mission and services.
It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth
living.” Similarly, for nonprofit boards, the unexamined board is not worth
Data Supports Need for Strengthening
Development, Education of Nonprofit Boards
The University of Notre Dame’s Nonprofit Professional
Development unit of the Mendoza College of Business annually offers executive
business education to more than 400 CEOs and other senior managers from some of
the nation’s best-known nonprofit service providers.
Prior to each new executive education session, Notre Dame
surveys the executives on how they rate the quality of their nonprofit boards.
After two years of such surveying, a pattern is emerging:
Senior managers rate their boards at a 7.1 level
on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. In academic terms, this is a 71
percent, or a barely passing grade. It hardly indicates best practice.
Almost all participants indicate their boards
have a policy limiting terms of service for trustees, as well as for officers.
Yet, these same managers report that the policy is not observed by 20 percent
of the boards. Similar inconsistencies surfaced in the basic function of
annually evaluating the executive director.
Only 47 percent of participants indicate their
boards use an annual self-assessment tool to evaluate their own performance as
This data reveals several interesting trends that support
the need for strengthening the development of nonprofit boards.
Resources for Self-Assessment
A variety of tools are available to assist nonprofit human
service boards with their annual assessment activities. We recommend:
-Requesting assistance from the Alliance Severson
Center to determine which tools are most frequently requested by Alliance and
United Neighborhood Centers of America members;
-Using the bulleted questions found in the main
-Referring to Peter Drucker’s suggestions in How to Assess Your Nonprofit Organization
With Peter Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions
and The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your
contact the Severson Center, go to alliance1.org/severson/request. Drucker’s
books can be found on amazon.com.
This article, written by Thomas Harvey and John Tropman, originally was published in On Board, a publication of Nonprofit Director. Thomas J. Harvey, MSW, is director of the Master of Nonprofit
Administration Program at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of
Business. John Tropman, Ph.D., is professor and associate dean for faculty
affairs at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He’s also an
adjunct professor at the university’s Ross School of Buisness. Harvey and
Tropman are co-authors of “Nonprofit Governance,” a book published in 2009 that
offers modern information and practical guidelines for directors and executives
of nonprofit organizations of all sizes.