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.