How effective is your board? – Part 4

Reflective Governance

Directors of most non-profit boards are volunteers who are time-poor. In my experience, some are reluctant to have their work evaluated, partly because they feel insulted that their honorary work is being opened to critical review (as they see it) as if they were remunerated.

And yet, when given the opportunity to identify ways in which the board could improve, they are appreciative of the insights and tools that help them to do their work more effectively. Identifying what skills development, system enhancements, process refinements, or other actions would be most beneficial, will ideally be the focus of your board effectiveness evaluation.

The MELD Reflective Governance Model invites directors and managers of non-profit and for-purpose organisations to build continuous improvement measures into their governance systems (see header chart above). Reflecting on our governance practice allows us to gain insights into opportunities for improvement, and to take appropriate action to become more effective. Evaluating what we did (summative evaluation) merely provides context for evaluating what we now need to improve (formative evaluation). (NOTE: The MELD diamond replaces the circular version used in previous posts about the MELD Reflective Governance Model).

The MELD Reflective Governance Model prompts boards to look beyond the dashboard to engage at a deeper level with their responsibility for value generation – as supported by the ISO 37000 Governance Standard and the AICD Not-for-profit Governance Principles – especially Principle 4 – Board Effectiveness. The value generation principle asks the board to define the value generation objectives that will fulfill the organisation’s purpose. The strategy principle then requires the board to direct and engage strategies in accordance with the value generation model.

A framework of frameworks

Governance and other organisational frameworks are used to set the rules, policies, and procedures that guide governance, management, and coordination of key functions to serve the organisational purpose. In fact, the governance framework is the central set of rules, policies, and procedures which ‘governs’ all other organisational systems and frameworks, as illustrated in the chart below.

Within the MELD Reflective Governance Model, the continuous dynamic interchange between directing, monitoring, evaluating, and learning is highlighted. Boards that are busy making decisions and addressing their ToDo list benefit from stepping back occasionally, to consider whether they are effectively addressing the ever-changing needs of their stakeholders (rather than efficiently doing what they have always done).

The Governance Framework and Measurement, Evaluation, and Learning (ME&L) Framework are ever-evolving parts of an integrated ‘living’ system. The definitions and distinctions highlighted in the chart below may help readers unfamiliar with the purposes of each, and their relationship.

Frameworks and sub-frameworks

The Board Effectiveness Evaluation Framework can be seen as one of several sub-frameworks within the ME&L Framework, some of which are outlined in the following slide. Different kinds of measurement and evaluation are required to gain ‘improvement insights’ in each dimension of organisational governance and management. This slide offers a reminder of some of the kinds of evaluation that may be undertaken by non-profits, of which board effectiveness evaluation is just one. The other point this highlights about board effectiveness is that it is not the sole determinant of organisational effectiveness. While it may be a key factor, it should be recognised as ‘necessary but not sufficient‘ to achieve overall effectiveness.

A high-level logic flow for your ME&L Framework, broadly applicable to most types of evaluation you may wish to undertake within your association or charity, is illustrated in this matrix chart. This chart could be adapted for use as a planning tool when considering the evaluation of most aspects of your organisational effectiveness.

Beware the Quantitative Fallacy

On a cautionary note, the worthy desire for objectivity sometimes invites directors to insist that quantitative indicators must be provided for every type of evaluation being undertaken. While metrics of various kinds are certainly necessary for effective insight into financial, membership, donor, and other numeric ‘measures’, they don’t provide much insight into matters like the effectiveness of your strategic planning or risk management.

The Quantitative Fallacy is one of the cognitive biases we need to be sensitive to as we adapt evaluation tools (like the matrix illustrated above) for use with ‘soft’ aspects of our governance and operations. Adaptation of frameworks is not just desirable, it is necessary to take account of your unique circumstances.

Frameworks are non-prescriptive guides

Simplified process flowcharts for each of the ME&L and Board Effectiveness Evaluation Frameworks are juxtaposed below to demonstrate that the high-level ME&L Framework acts as a general guide to the development of a particular evaluation, rather than prescribing a set of fixed elements and stages. This flexibility will also be required to recognise that no two non-profits are the same, whether or not they sit in the same broad category of NFP type.

To further illustrate this flexibility, an alternative framework is provided below, with an emphasis on a series of plain language questions (courtesy of Kiel, Nicholson, and Barclay, 2015), rather than more formal evaluation ‘jargon’. This chart also includes annotations on the MELD Reflective Governance Model which may offer some further insights into the purpose of such an integrated approach.

Effective reflection

As previously noted, some directors see a board effectiveness evaluation as a chore they need to tick off an annual To-Do list. When that is the case, the shortest possible tick-the-box survey is the tool they are looking for.

The ‘lived experience’ of most directors consulted however, is that the key success factors in board effectiveness evaluation are the quality of the board’s conversation about opportunities for improvement, and their commitment to take action to capitalise on those opportunities. A short survey might be helpful, but only as a starting point for the conversation required for the board to target the areas most likely to benefit from specific improvements.

To be continued …

Part 5 of this series will offer a small collection of diagnostic tools that could help your board to consider alignment with relevant governance ‘standards’. To reiterate, the use of any such simple survey or profile tool is only the starting point for your board conversation aiming to better serve your stakeholders and the wider community.

See also:

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