Board Smarts: Go Your Own Way With Self-Assessments

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Take a do-it-yourself approach to board self-assessments.

When it’s time for a board to evaluate its own performance, some associations turn to standardized self-assessment tools. But not all self-assessments are created equal, especially if you have a complex governance structure like the one at the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission.

NEIWPCC has 35 board members, also known as commissioners, who are appointed by governors in each of its seven member states. “We toe the line between an association, a nonprofit, and a pseudo-government agency,” says Cambria Happ, CAE, the organization’s business operations manager and board liaison.

Last year, NEIWPCC set out to conduct its first board self-assessment, and Happ was looking for a tool that would reflect its leaders, who are state administrators, engineers, and consultants.

The main finding was that we needed to have a little more focus on board training.

“A lot of the options out there were too lengthy, and the terminology didn’t quite fit our organization,” she says. “Given the diversity of our board members’ backgrounds, it was clear that we needed an assessment tool that felt familiar to everyone.”

Rather than pay for a prebuilt self-assessment, NEIWPCC took a do-it-yourself approach. Using SurveyMonkey, Happ built an online survey with customized questions and unique survey pathing. “We decided to use paths so that the questions could vary for agency or nonagency commissioners,” she says. “It got us to some very specific information from each respondent.”

Happ knew that the assessment wouldn’t be useful without a high level of participation. She distributed the survey with a cover letter, explaining that responses were anonymous and valuable to the organization. And the online format made participating easy.

“If you have everyone in a room and give them a piece of paper, yes, that helps with your response rate, but I don’t think you get as thorough or thoughtful a response as you do with an online self-assessment,” Happ says.

From start to finish, the self-assessment took about four months to create and administer. The timing felt a bit rushed, Happ says, and it may be why the survey did not receive a 100 percent response rate. Plus, there’s at least one downside to the do-it-yourself approach—you can’t benchmark results the way some off-the-shelf products do.

“Something that we are focused on now is increasing the response rate,” Happ says.

But already there have been some quick wins from the first self-assessment. NEIWPCC is changing how it orients new commissioners, and the quality of board conversation has gone up.

“The main finding was that we needed to have a little more focus on board training. Now, we are focused on the onboarding process for new members and continuing that education over time,” Happ says. “Overall, the board is excited to engage in a different level of discussion now.”

From Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives.

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