How effective is your board? – Part 2

Part 1 of this series on board effectiveness noted that the evaluation of board effectiveness is just one aspect of your overall Measurement, Evaluation, and Learning Model (and that this in turn is just part of your MELD Governance Model). It also suggested that there are various dimensions of board effectiveness, each of which includes a range of focal areas.

The AICD’s Building Blocks of Effective Governance include board effectiveness as one element of good governance. In their model, the building blocks are integral parts of a unified whole. Consequently, board effectiveness cannot really be considered in isolation from all of the other elements. In one sense you could simply see board effectiveness as the lens through which you consider how well all of the elements work together to achieve organisational effectiveness (i.e. the degree to which the organisation achieves its goals).

The main point of Part 1 was to argue that both objective and subjective perspectives need to be accommodated into your evaluation of board effectiveness. This recognises that, as far as board evaluations are concerned, this quote is insightful:

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”.

William Bruce Cameron, Informal Sociology (1963)

While Part 1 described various characteristics of board effectiveness evaluation approaches, it only made passing reference to the subjects and focus of evaluation. This post, therefore, offers some thoughts on those themes.

What do we mean by ‘board effectiveness’?

You may look for a single authoritative definition of board effectiveness in vain. Depending on your organisational purpose, type, structure, tax/charity status, field of activity, location, and numerous other variables, you will doubtless apply somewhat different definitions.

Kim Cameron made this point well in his contribution to the Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (2015):

“Organizational effectiveness is a construct that is grounded in the values and preferences of evaluators. Therefore, no single and correct definition of organizational effectiveness exists. Several models or definitions of effectiveness have emerged in the literature, including the ideal type or bureaucratic model (effectiveness means matching the ideal characteristics of a bureaucratic organization), the goal model (effectiveness means accomplishing goals), the natural systems model (effectiveness means obtaining needed resources), the strategic constituencies model (effectiveness means satisfying important stakeholders), the internal processes model (effectiveness means high quality internal processes), the paradox model (effectiveness means the presence of simultaneous opposites), and the abundance model (effectiveness means producing flourishing and virtuousness). The criteria for evaluating effectiveness in each of these models differ, but each has a legitimate claim to being a useful approach to assessing and producing valuable outcomes.”

Source: Cameron, K. (2015). Organizational Effectiveness. In Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (eds C.L. Cooper, P.C. Flood and Y. Freeney).

The header chart above, and the Domains, Frames, and Models chart below, refer to these different definitions.

Cameron’s ‘value preference’ argument regarding organisational effectiveness can also be applied to defining what we mean by board effectiveness. So, depending on whether you are a professional association, an industry association, a welfare charity, a health promotion charity, a social venture, or some other type of non-profit or for-purpose organisation, you will have different perspectives on what effectiveness means.

Taking that variability into account then, a high-level way of discussing board effectiveness could be to suggest that it has some common elements, each of which needs to function optimally for a board to be ‘effective’ in its work. Those elements could include:

  • achievement of impact goals (e.g. service quality, improved benefit flows)
  • achievement of efficiency goals (e.g. focused board deliberations)
  • the degree to which internal processes are aligned, (e.g. policies and behaviours), and
  • the degree to which the resources required to thrive have been secured (e.g. increased donations or membership numbers)
    See also:

In Part 1 of this series, I suggested that the focal areas for board effectiveness evaluation could cluster within six dimensions. The following chart unpacks each of those dimensions with some suggested focal areas (amongst others) that you could potentially target for evaluation and ‘improvement’:

Triage – initial diagnosis of ‘opportunities for improvement’

Given the multitude of potential focal areas for your evaluation, you are never likely to attempt a comprehensive evaluation in any one year. Some form of triaging or needs assessment is required to ensure that you are addressing the areas offering the greatest opportunities for improvement (otherwise known as issues or problems).

In one study, Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray noted that issues identified as problems by boards using a self-assessment instrument were clustered around three elements:

  • Board governance roles and responsibilities:
    • ensuring the organization has adequate resources (fundraising), and;
    • strategic planning – being aware of external challenges and considering ways to address them.
  • Composition and development of the board itself, i.e., finding, orienting, and providing ongoing development for board members.
  • Board culture; lack of board engagement in assessments of its own performance.

Source: Harrison, Yvonne & Murray, Vic. (2014). The Effect of an Online Self-Assessment Tool on Nonprofit Board Performance. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 44. 10.1177/0899764014557361.

You will want to do your own diagnosis of key issues for your board of course. That diagnosis could be annual, with tailored evaluation activities being used after the needs assessment has identified focal areas. Given the breadth of the areas that could (and perhaps should) be evaluated, it may also be prudent to establish a 3-5 year rolling evaluation plan, which aims to address aspects of at least two of the main dimensions each year, and all six dimensions over the length of the cycle.

Taking into account the nature of your organisation and the model of effectiveness you are applying, different assessment and evaluation methods will apply. The chart below suggests some of the areas in which you might focus your attention (adapted from an approach recommended by Effective Governance.)

The elephant in the room

When stating the obvious might cause discomfort (because it would be considered personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, or inflammatory), reticence is understandable. One such circumstance is highlighted in this cartoon.

Surfacing the sensitive issues affecting board effectiveness must be handled with care of course. If handled poorly, the fallout could be calamitous. Judicious and diplomatic measures are required, often behind the scenes and in private, rather than in a meeting.

Some of the situations that could warrant more discreet low-key responses are listed in the chart below. (Note: These illustrate sensitive issues in just a few of the focal areas listed in the Sample Dimensions and Focal Areas chart above)

A quick scan of the matters listed here reveals why subjective evaluation methods need to be included alongside your objective measures – as argued in Part 1 of this series.

Part 3 will reflect on some of the evaluation methods and approaches you may wish to consider when planning your board effectiveness evaluation.

See also:

Reflective Governance: the MELD Model

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