Nonprofit boards are tasked with overseeing the management of their organizations, but who oversees the board? While outside agencies may comment and provide feedback on board functioning, at the end of the day, boards are responsible for evaluating their own performance.
Have you ever asked an employee to evaluate his or her performance and then found that he or she rates it higher than you do? Yet when boards do their own self evaluations, they often do not question their own similar bias toward inflated effectiveness. After all, if they identify areas that require improvement, then that will mean more work!
At Council on Accreditation, we have found that exit interviews with outgoing board members can be a fertile source of less-biased feedback. Not only do these board members know intimately how the board functions, they no longer will have to put in the work to fix perceived weaknesses. With the right prompts, exiting board members can provide valuable insights into ways that the board is currently functioning and how it might improve.
Exit interviews also can be a meaningful way to capture wisdom that was gained while serving on the board so it can be passed down, as well as express appreciation for the contributions made to the organization. They can serve as the bookend to the orientation process — one is designed to help transition board members on to the board; the other helps to transition them off.
Board members (ideally members of the governance committee) should conduct the exit interviews. Staff should not conduct the interviews. Why? If exiting board members are addressing management, they may be more guarded in their remarks so as not to offend.
While it’s tempting to use a checklist or multiple-choice questions for exit interviews, we’ve found a more effective approach is to have an outline of prompts for discussion of certain topics. Letting the interviewee direct the conversation to the specifics that he or she believes are the most relevant allows for deeper understanding than marching through a list of questions like a telephone survey. A skilled listener using open-ended questions can probe with follow-up questions that ask for specific examples or suggestions on how board operations could be modified.
In developing our areas of discussion for the interview, the Council on Accreditation board considers both the responsibilities of the board and how the board operates. Some common areas that might be included are as follows:
- Use of talents – How effectively did we use your talents?
- Board meeting agendas – Did the board spend its time on the right things? (Generative discussion, strategic thinking and planning, finance, risk assessment, policy, oversight, etc.)
- Meeting effectiveness – How effective were the board and committee meetings?
- Staff relations – Do you have any suggestions for improving the interactions between the board and staff?
- Future involvement –How would you like to stay involved with the organization?
Each of these questions can be followed by more detailed questioning. For example, under use of talents, you might explore the following:
- How well did you feel your contributions to the board were recognized and appreciated?
- How well did you feel you were listened to and respected in meetings?
- What about your board service could have been improved?
The interview should always end with the expression of appreciation for all the contributions the board member provided over the years as well as for the insights shared in the interview.
The board member conducting the interview should document the key points raised so that they can be reviewed by the governance committee. In determining action steps, the governance committee should be particularly alert for common themes from different people. Each area for improvement should be evaluated to determine what, if any, action steps should be taken. In some cases, an improvement that was suggested might not be cost beneficial in terms of time or money. Or the suggested improvement might be a low priority compared to other initiatives. However, making these assessments is a key part of the process.
Exit interviews of retiring board members can provide rich feedback for board improvement, the means to pass down board wisdom, and a very personal way to thank the board member. We suggest you give them a try.