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Board exams.

When board attendance declines, when committees don't meet or can't focus on assigned tasks, or when board members resign in great numbers, the astute association executive knows the board of directors needs to take a close look at itself-how it's structured and how it functions.

A board assessment-a thorough analysis of how effectively a board is doing its work and how it can change m better serve the goals of the organization-is the perfect forum.

Any board benefits from an assessment, but sometimes it takes a crisis to initiate one. One state group, for example, decided on an assessment because its executive director and board chair felt the organization was being wrenched apart by two competing member factions. Another organization, the Spina Bifida Association, nearly tripled its budget in two years, moved its headquarters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and hired a full-time staff to take over the day-to-day management previously conducted by its board members. SBA then invested time and money in a board assessment to help sort out its board and staff roles.

The executive director's role

The roles of the executive director and other staff vary with the association and circumstances that prompt a board assessment. In a healthy organization, the executive director and board members work jointly to plan and conduct the assessment.

The SBA board conducted its assessment during a weekend retreat. Immediately following the assessment, the board met to make decisions on issues-such as changing the structure of the board--that emerged during the assessment. SBA Executive Director Kathy Hartnett decided not to lead SBA's assessment because she felt someone outside the organization could play a more effective, neutral, mediating role.

The board's role

Although the executive director may generate the idea for an assessment, board members must take an active part in generating data about how the board functions, identifying problems, and developing strategies to solve the problems.

Collecting the data. A diagnosis of the board's problems should be based on data that have credibility, not on random gossip or guesses. Board members can collect data through interviews or questionnaires-conducted by a consultant, board members, or both. Create a team-some combination of the executive director, board members, and a consultant--to examine board and staff issues. The interviews or questionnaires must be completed before the board convenes to discuss the results.

Before SBA's assessment, board members rated their own performance as excellent, good/average, needs attention, or poor. The result: a list of prioritv issues that created an agenda for discussion. According to Hartnett, the scores helped the board address where they needed to improve, tools needed, and what staff could do to help.

In a typical assessment, a board rates its performance in the following areas: o Administrative, legal, and financial: setting policy in areas such as membership requirements; maintaining good legal standing; retaining and evaluating top management; planning, budgeting, fund-raising, and so forth.

* Board structure and professional interactions: working with staff, recruiting board members, and ensuring board recognition.

* Public responsibility: acting as a liaison with community groups to provide information and ensure positive relationships.

Analyzing the data. During this stage, the board receives a report on the information provided by its members. The findings are then presented during the assessment and used to generate a discussion. Whether data are discussed in one group with the entire board or in smaller groups depends on the number of participants and the number of issues addressed during the assessment. The goal: to direct discussion to areas where board members have indicated they are deficient and formulate solutions to the problems.

A consultant, board members, or a combination of the board, consultant, and/or executive director may present the data. The assessment facilitator ensures the agenda is addressed, provides all participan,s the opportunity to voice their opinions, gives attention to issues that surface unexpectedly, and preserves adequate time for a focused discussion of developing a plan.

Developing a plan. Once a board discusses the issues, members must tailor solutions to the problems. One troubled association, for example, used an assessment to confront problems that stemmed from an intimate relationship between a board member and a staff member. The problem surfaced when several board members expressed concern that confidential information was being channeled inappropriately to association staff. The board established guidelines of confidentiality, including a process whereby board members could withdraw from deliberations if they presented conflicts of interest.

The SBA board identified "information flow" as an area that needed attention. Some board members who had run SBA before it hired a full-time staff wanted to see a lot of written information about the activities of the association. Other board members did not. The solution: Send all board members a monthly report on what is available, and only mail additional materials to board members who request them.

Long-term benefits

The key to a positive board assessment is to continue the process beyond a one- or two-day discussion, The board should propose and agree on follow-up activities to stimulate continued growth. Here are some of the positive results an assessment can bring:

* A more positive working relationship between staff and the board and among board members. Reports the executive director of an association: "The board learned more about each other as people .... If you know something about where people are coming from, you can make better decisions."

* Creation of a stronger financial base. One board concluded that some members were not providing enough financial support to the organization. Now it requires every board member to either contribute or raise $95,000 annually.

* Board restructuring. A lack of communication among board members, members who didn't know each other, and high meeting expenses plagued one large association board. The board addressed all three problems by reducing its size.

* Establishment of an ongoing assessment. SBA created a joint board-staff committee to explore how both groups can continually improve their performance. Other boards set aside time at each meeting to ask basic questions: "What did we accomplish?" and "What should be on our agenda at the next meeting?" Other boards devote a half day or a full day to assessment every 6 or 12 months.

Success factors

A board assessment requires time, energy, and often money. What can you do to ensure the results are positive?

* Consider carefully who-other than board members-should participate. SBA included its eight staff members in the assessment, a decision Hartnett says gave the board "the opportunity to see... a lot of creative energy that exists on the staff," and helped the staff "remove some of their paranoia about the board." Some boards, however, may be uncomfortable talking about problems in the presence of staff.

* Encourage discussion of the real issues. Too often boards avoid questions about individual performance, relationships with staff or other board members, or style. Yet these issues can make or break a board or association.

* Establish a positive, future-oriented tone. "We decided that our meeting was not going to be about blame," says Hartnett. "The focus was to move us forward, not to go over every mistake." This helps allay board and staff member fears of embarrassment or reprisal for past actions.

You can make your work easier and help strengthen your association by encouraging and supporting a board assessment. The experience can be uncomfortable and even painful at times. But getting unspoken assumptions on the table where they can be addressed is crucial. In any organization, expectations are usually not met as long as assumptions remain unspoken.

What to Ask

Each board has unique problems, members, and ways of operating and interacting with association staff. But all board members grapple with how to meet their responsibilities effectively.

Seeking answers to the following questions can identify issues to address in a board assessment.

* Do we have a comfortable, respectful. and appropriate relationship with association staff?.

* Does our board membership reflect our functions and needs? Or should we modify our recruitment policies?

* Do we keep up with developments in our field? What training or briefings are needed?

* Do we orient new board members so that they can have positive roles?

* How can we encourage positive participation and modify unhelpful participation among our board members?

* Do we hold our board members accountable for meeting their responsibilities-attending meetings, making financial contributions, taking leadership roles-and give them positive feedback and recognition when they do?

* Do our operating and governance structures support our strategic plan? Are they effective?
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:assessment of board members in associations
Author:Pierson, Jane
Publication:Association Management
Date:May 1, 1992
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