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What qualities make a good non-profit director?

I recently joined the board of directors of a non-profit organization, with little idea of what my directorship would actually entail. A friend suggested I would be a good fit, because of my past arts involvement and social media experience. She recommended me to the board before the organization’s annual general meeting and after a brief interview with the chair of the governance committee, the board welcomed me into their midst.

toronto-outdoor-art-exhibition-logoThe directors of The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE) run the massive outdoor art fair that takes place each summer in Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s City Hall. It’s a small organization—the board outnumbers the staff—with limited resources, and every member must help out. I don’t know yet exactly what part I’ll play in that operation, or how well I’ll do, but I’m excited to get started.

So how can a not-for-profit organization like TOAE ensure that its board members are living up to their responsibilities? How will I know whether my performance measures up to expectations? Certainly, we can look to the success of past exhibitions and ancillary events as one indication. If our events are successful, we can assume that the board is doing well. Another factor might be goals we set for the board or individual committees. If the marketing committee sets out to reach certain groups of people or the fundraising committee aims to collect a certain sum, then we can measure the performance of those committees’ members against those goals.

But these examples are general, applying to groups of people. What about individual board members? Author and perennial volunteer board member, Doreen Pendgracs, writes on CharityVillage.com that wide-ranging assessments of board members’ performance can provide very useful information to individual members and the board as a whole, and help the board and its organization reach their potential.

If for-profit businesses rely on performance evaluations to keep thing running smoothly, one might imagine that such an initiative would be equally important for cash-strapped organizations that have to make every dollar work.

Pendgracs says that one board on which she served “evaluated every aspect of board relations”, meaning:

  • Self-assessment (individual directors evaluate their own participation and understanding of board matters)
  • Peer assessment (directors anonymously evaluate one another)
  • Leader assessment (directors evaluate the board’s chair and vice-chair)
  • Board interaction with key staff (such as the executive director)

“The results of these assessments should be carefully tabulated and compared (i.e., your assessment of your own performance should be compared to how others on the board assessed you).”

At the same time:

Board evaluations are likely to get more buy-in and cooperation from all parties if they are not perceived as punitive—meaning not intended to punish, create embarrassment or be of a finger pointing nature. But it is also important for all parties concerned to believe that the evaluations are meaningful and will be acted upon if results warrant that some form of corrective action be taken.

Just like employee performance reviews. And also like in other performance reviews, there are criteria that boards should look for in directors:

  • Attendance and promptness at meetings
  • Effectively contributing to discussions at meetings
  • Being prepared for meetings (reading/doing your homework)
  • Willingness to take on roles and duties
  • Willingness to help others (mentoring)
  • Interacting well with fellow directors and staff
  • Ability to think independently and without bias
  • Demonstrating sound judgment
  • Being consultative or a team player in nature
  • Being knowledgeable of the organization’s issues

Of course, this advice doesn’t apply to non-profit directors. These attributes, as well as the performance reviews intended to encourage them, might be valuable on many boards.

Besides its extensive coverage of boards of directors in not-for-profit organizations, Not-for-Profit PolicyPro from First Reference includes a board of directors self-assessment questionnaire, which boards can use to measure their performance, encourage discussion or action and identify areas for improvement or development. The book also includes a sample skills assessment and development plan for employees, which could be adapted for use among board members.

Pendgracs is the author of Before you say yes…, which “leads the reader through the intricacies of management style, board etiquette and responsibilities, Robert’s Rules of Order, directors’ and officers’ insurance, and financial obligations and compensation.”

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Editor at First Reference
Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.), is a researcher, content provider and editor. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks and Internal Control blogs, HRinfodesk and other First Reference publications. His areas of focus include broad human resources issues, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance and government policies, information technology and labour market trends.Read more
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