07/30/2012 11:18 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

Nonprofit Board Self-Assessment: Creating the Path Forward

Given financial threats and opportunities and a passion for their missions, a growing number of NGO/nonprofit boards are seeking to assess how they can become stronger and more effective in maximizing their greater potential.

Business executives and professionals and people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who serve on NGO/nonprofit boards can bring valuable expertise in helping boards consider new revenue models and opportunities and explore ways of increasing the organization's impact through new partnerships.

In my work with hundreds of NGO/nonprofit boards, they ask for guidance in assessing and improving the organization's:
  • Board composition: "Who are the right people for this board in order for us to accomplish this organization's greatest potential, and who are the right leaders?"
  • Structure: "What's the optimal size for this board, and how do we organize ourselves for effectiveness and efficiency?"
  • Practices: "What board practices will enable us to accomplish our mission and our greatest aspirations in serving the community?"

The approach that truly illuminates this board assessment process is to begin with a discussion of the organization's Greater Vision: What's the board's and CEO's vision of the organization's greater potential in the next several years? In some cases, the board and CEO might envision expanding partnerships with corporations and other nonprofits to expand its reach, impact, and revenues. In other cases, the board and CEO might envision narrowing its focus on core programs that are demonstrating the greatest impact based on outcome measurement studies. In other situations, organizations envision replicating their unique and highly effective approaches to address key social and/or environmental challenges.

The key is to assess your board in the context of how well it is equipped to advance the organization to its Greater Vision. With that in mind, the questions for the board become quite different. The question is no longer: "Do we have the right board members?" Instead, the question becomes: "Do we have the board members with the expertise, diversity, relationships, etc. who can help this organization to achieve its Greater Vision in the next few years?" The question is no longer: "Does the board have the right committees?" Instead, the question is: "Does the board have the committees necessary to efficiently, effectively, and productively advance the organization toward the Greater Vision?"

Once the board begins to assess itself in the context of its capacity to achieve the Greater Vision, then the board and CEO can create a path forward to enhance the board's composition and improve the board's structure and practices accordingly.

Boards become energized and enthusiastic when they begin to envision how their organizations can have an even greater impact and understand how they can help to make that possible.