Assessments: Organizational and Otherwise

I was interviewing for the opportunity to do an organizational assessment for a foundation, when the Board President asked me, astutely, what an organizational assessment includes – as I see it. I was facing a board of nearly 15 individuals in a large conference room, with board members ranging from 30 years of age to over 90. Within this age-diverse group, there must have been at least as many understandings of the phrase “organizational assessment” as there were individuals in the room.

We work in a field where names and labels can mean so many different things. By way of example, the word “foundation” has no particular legal meaning, although “private foundation” certainly does. And yet, a private foundation holds its assets in the public trust. In the meantime, “public charities” have fewer disclosure requirements than private foundations! The label “public charity” is hardly in use outside of a law firm; they’re referred to as “nonprofits” to distinguish them from private foundations, although, technically, private foundations are nonprofits, too!

Organizational assessments (OAs) are similarly undefined. An OA can assess almost anything under the sun: impact, expenses; external stakeholders; peers in the field or community; transparency; staff compensation; grantmaking strategies and/or processes (for funders); development (for nonprofits); and so on.

Hence, the Board President’s question to me was a good one. I’m sure every consultant they were interviewing had a different understanding and different approach! Having worked with many organizations over the years, here’s my approach:

Unless the organization I’m working with requests otherwise, it’s my preference to initiate an OA with two constants: a communications review and a board self-assessment. The communications review is my review of the organization’s internal and external communications, from bylaws and policies to grant forms or applications and website. Then, the board self-assessment is my opportunity to hear from each board member individually, and can take the form of one-on-one interviews, a survey, or combined strategies (if a survey is used, I recommend those offered by Exponent Philanthropy for small foundations or BoardSource for nonprofits and large foundations). With what I think of as “the two constants” complete, I convene with my point person or committee to recommend and confirm which additional pieces will be assessed.

Then we embark on any additional assessments that are priorities for the organization. There are many terrific tools already crafted and readily available, and I have others in my own toolkit. Often, an organization will look at two to four additional areas, but it depends on that organization’s particular situation. You want enough additional information to hone in on the organization’s particular situation but not so much data that you find yourself swimming in information.

I work throughout with my point person or team so there are no big surprises in the final report to the board. I like to craft a report for the board and present it alongside a summary presentation — usually with a PowerPoint and any handouts as appropriate. My report includes both straightforward aggregate information as well as recommendations that I offer to the board as a starting point for their own discussion and decisions. Then, I am available to facilitate the conversations that emerge, depending upon our contract and the board’s wishes.

It’s an exciting, creative process! Although it can feel somewhat groundless to not have rock-solid, rigid definition of OA, in the end, I value its flexibility and creativity. The end goal, after all, is to have something useful to the organization that reflects the organization’s values and needs, and can be implemented as effortlessly as possible.

And don’t forget – the different assessments that can be completed within an OA can also be done as stand-alones and still be incredibly useful.

If you’re curious to learn more, I’m happy to chat! Give me a call at 202-669-0686 or shoot me an email to set up a time to talk. I’m happy to be of service to you on your journey by considering together what you’re looking for. There’s no better way for you to get a stronger sense of whether it’s time for your organization to do an assessment, organizational or otherwise — and for us both to learn if I’m a good fit to work with you and your organization.

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