Social Sector Peer Evaluation: A Proposal

Imagine a new nonprofit board governance practice where organizations engaged peers to assess their work.

The board's process for effectively evaluating their organization is critical to the success of the industry, but the process has been historically mired in controversy and lacking in generally accepted best practices.  

At many universities, academic departments undergo periodic strategic assessments. Schools seek a clear-eyed look at the direction and priorities of each department so that they can assess practices and compare them to departments at other universities across the country.

The typical review includes an internal assessment conducted by a select group of internal stakeholders, which may include department coordinators, leading faculty, alumni, and administrative staff. Peers—faculty and staff from programs at other universities—then use this assessment as the basis for an external review. The external review team for a department at the University of Texas, for example, might include peers from the University of Alabama, Harvard University, Tulane, and New York University.

The external review team is recruited, reads the internal review, and then does a site visit, where they meet with a wide range of stakeholders—including students, faculty, and community members—over the course of several days. The team submits a report, which the head of the department uses to develop the strategic plan.

Coming from a nonprofit evaluation and strategic planning perspective, this seems a slow and expensive process that doesn’t necessarily focus on outcome measurement or performance metrics. But there is a nugget here that might make it a model worth considering despite the challenges.

Imagine a new nonprofit board governance practice where every three years, organizations engaged three to five leaders from peer organizations in other parts of the country to conduct an assessment of its work.

The external review team would look at all aspects of the organization, including program design, organizational structure, fundraising, and board engagement. The team members would also reflect on their own organizations’ experiences and share knowledge—what worked, what didn’t work, and what potential strategies that the organization under review might consider.

This approach could create a whole new level of accountability. Boards too often depend on the perspective of their organization’s executive director to define what is possible or effective. There are no activists yelling at them, and they rarely experience media scrutiny. Informed feedback from peer nonprofit executives would better enable boards to truly govern, and to set the vision and strategy for their organizations.

This could have some compelling secondary benefits as well. It likely would reenergize the nonprofit leaders who conduct the assessments, providing them with fresh perspective and new ideas. It would also create networks of support for these leaders and potentially lead to new partnerships.

Given the nonprofit sector’s tendency toward collaboration over competition, this approach has potential. Holding boards accountable to peers nationwide could enhance the cohesiveness of the sector as a whole, driving social progress in a more streamlined way.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • I enjoyed your post but think this is an example of an idea looking better on paper than in practice.  First to get an outside board to dedicate the time and knowledge needed to support such a peer evaluation effort will be difficult at best.  I single site visit by this outside board, rounding up a cross section of the nonprofit’s constituents is simply not enough knowledge to capture more than a cursory analysis of how effective the board being evaluated really is.  Secondly, just because a potential evaluator is a peer organization does no mean they have the skills themselves to conduct an evaluation of merit—who determines if they themselves are a well run board doing the best possible work for their own organization?

    The better approach—and one nonprofits should of course inherently do anyway—but often don’t, is build a well-rounded internal board with an excellent cross section of experiences—operational, financial, strategic, impact, marketing, etc.  If nonprofit boards were better at ensuring their diversity and skill set breadth were better developed, than we wouldn’t need to consider going outside.  I like your thinking however, feel that the execution and time this will take likely wouldn’t yield the intended results.

  • BY Peter York

    ON May 17, 2012 08:38 AM

    Aaron - a very interesting idea whose time has come. The idea of an outside peer review has been, as you note, used in other contexts, often when trying to remove self-report bias from a rather muddy amalgamation of assessment metrics and criteria. While Anon raises some legitimate logistical challenges, I do believe that they could be overcome with technological assistance. And, the details can be worked out; I see your idea is in a formation stage, and only through testing will we know how to make it cost-effective. The best part of your idea is the hypothesis that it will lead to informed feedback and network support, as well as some quid pro quo learning for all participating. In my experience with evaluating peer review processes, this hypothesis almost always gets proven true.

    Great idea…next action?

  • BY Lucy Bernholz

    ON May 17, 2012 09:54 AM

    Good for you for pushing this idea forward - here’s my take on it from 2009


  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON May 17, 2012 11:01 AM

    Anon, there are real logistical challenges and it would need to be refined but boards as they stand are always too insider and dependent on information from the ED.

    Pete, this would be a great pilot for TCC to pitch a funder working in an issue to do across a national portfolio.  Casey?  RJW? Ford? 

    That is a great take Lucy - as always.  You are always way ahead of me.

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