Postponing the “A” Word

October 22, 2012

Last week, we kicked off the 6th annual Dodge Board Leadership series with a session that focused in part on assessment.  For the first time in over twelve years of doing Dodge Foundation workshops, I decided not to mention the word “assessment” until we were well into the topic. Instead, I asked three questions, with a few minutes in between them so people could write down their answers. (Try this right now and experience what the attendees experienced. Just answer each question before moving along to the next. Don’t peek at the next question for the full impact.)

  1. Given your organization, with its particular mission, what does success look like for you? (pause)
  2. Whatever you just wrote, can you be more specific? (pause)
  3. If you haven’t already done so, would you give an example of what you’ve just written about?

Then I asked people from the same organization to compare notes with each other. The energy level in the room was high at this point—and why wouldn’t it be? Everyone was talking with a colleague, sometimes two or three, about why the organization they work for, or volunteer for, exists in the world. People wanted to keep talking, but I stopped them and asked them to write down their responses to three more questions, again with a few minutes to ponder each:

  1. Whatever success looked like for you in that last set of questions, now describe what it would look like at an even higher level. Put another way, what would success REALLY look like? (pause)
  2. Whatever you just wrote, can you be more specific? (pause)
  3. If you don’t have an example to help me understand what you mean by success at this level, would you make one up?

Again, I asked each organizational team to compare notes. And let’s just say the energy level was REALLY high. I could have left the room for a half-hour at this point without anyone noticing. But instead, after a while, I asked, “Is this a good conversation?” “Yes,” the group answered. “Would you like to bring your other staff and Board colleagues in on it?” “Yes.” “Then let’s talk about how you as leaders of your organization can foster the sort of culture that has conversations like this and has ways to keep track of them, build on them, and use them to help make decisions about what you do.” I was talking about building an assessment culture.  And without using the word “rubric,” the teams from each organization had begun to build one, as they discussed together by what criteria they would measure success and began to meld together their visions of what success would look like at various levels.  They were beginning to create a clear, specific, shared vision they could plan backwards from – and one they could use to give and receive feedback in time for the feedback to be useful.

My contention has always been that the word “assessment” needs to be rehabilitated. We have all experienced assessment so many times in our lives as students as something that comes at the end and judges our past performance that we have trouble assuming it could be something that happens all along and improves our performance. But it can be. Coaches know that. Teachers of performing arts know that. And leaders of non-profit organizations can know it, too, once they establish some basic principles and some new habits with their colleagues.

First, they have to want to set up those new habits, and that is why I postponed use of the A-word. Who knew a core assessment conversation could feel so exciting?

David Grant was President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation from 1998 to 2010. He now lives in Vermont and consults with mission-based organizations around the world.

If you missed the kick-off of the new Board Leadership Series, you can still access three important tools to support your board capacity building efforts:

1) Follow our monthly technical assistance blog posts;

2) Discuss your challenges, ask questions, and share your experiences with your nonprofit colleagues on the Dodge website at: JOIN THE CONVERSATION;

3) Sign up for one of the Drill Down workshops on topics of Strategic Planning, Board and Executive Director Relationship, Care and Feeding of Board Members, Financial Management; and Fundraising. Organizations who are taking the full series will get priority registration, but there is often availability. Taking one workshop is a great way for your board to understand the value of the investment and plan for future in-depth participation.