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© David Gray, CFP®, CDFA

When I was the Executive Director of a mid-sized Arts organization I believed that the only Board development tool I needed was a whip. If I could reign in trustees and make them march in the direction I wanted all would be right with the world.

Unfortunately, I found that trustees, like children, often don’t respond to harshness with the appropriate alacrity. Yet it was clear that we needed a method to direct Board energy. Fortunately, the folks at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation brought a great assessment tool to our attention. They had done extensive work with assessment rubrics and we thought we could successfully apply them to Board development. This took a bit longer than the whip approach but proved far more effective in the long-run.


Assessment rubrics were developed in the education community among folks who were trying to get away from the rigidity of pass/fail scoring. The problem with typical assessments is that they tend to look backward (you did or did not do something previous to the date of the discussion) and they seldom offer useful feedback for improved future performance. Being told you passed or failed, or scored a certain level on a test does not tell you how to do better. Even if such a "final" assessment does offer some feedback it isn’t as useful as a midcourse correction might have been.

Typical end-of-session pass/fail testing is similar to asking a group of students to take football out to the field for three months and learn play football without any guidance. They may play some version of the game at the end of the three months but it certainly would have been better had someone coached them along the way. It is this opportunity for coaching and guidance that are the weakness in pass/fail testing, scoring, and annual job reviews. The strength of assessment rubrics is that they offer well defined criteria for ongoing guidance.

Creating the rubric requires two things, a decision on what is to be measured, and then within these criteria, the range to be measured. For example, if you were going to create a rubric to assess your child’s behaviour you might determine that one criteria might be the child’s involvement in household chores. Under this heading of chores, you would then determine what "basic acceptable" behavior is, for example, setting the dinner table nightly, and then create a scale of increased involvement by adding additional chores, so that they might also clear the table at the end of a meal, help fold the laundry and do yardwork. Thus acceptable behaviour might be to participate in one chore each day while stellar behaviour might include three or four tasks conducted with a positive attitude without prompting.

Assessment rubrics can be built around most any theme and are best created by the team of people who will be involved, both as the assessors and those being assessed. In addition to creating a much stronger sense of "buy-in" it also might flesh-out measurables you had never before considered.


Although one of the biggest challenges in creating assessment criteria is determining what it is that you will measure, developing a rubric of Board responsibility is not as daunting as it may at first appear. The reason for this is that the work of all non-profit Boards can be reduced to three key areas of participation, Advocacy, Fundraising, and Governance. Where the needs of differing organizations are brought into play is in the scale of participation a rubric would measure.

Advocacy work can be as basic as sending a letter to friends and colleagues making them aware that a nonprofit exists. Efforts to advocate on behalf of an organization can be more involved, such as arranging meetings between leaders of the nonprofit organization and key political figures. Successful Board advocacy efforts might include arranging for media coverage of the organization. The key here is to discuss how the strategic goals of the organization can be further met by the use of advocacy. These advocacy needs of the organization then form the scale of measurement in the rubric.

What does your organization need for its stage of life? The start-up might consider adequate advocacy efforts handing out flyers on a street corner or representing the organization before a community group. Stellar advocacy might include hosting a party to introduce the staff to your circle of friends. For the large nonprofit acceptable levels of advocacy might include speaking about the nonprofit at the local Rotary meeting. Stellar Advocacy might include getting the Governor to be the honoree at your annual dinner.

Likewise, fundraising can be defined along a scale from modest donor to Daddy Warbucks. A small start-up nonprofit might indicate in its rubric that modest participation in fundraising would be a personal gift of any amount. Thus a check for $10 dollars would be perfectly adequate while someone providing $100 with a matching gift from their employer would be considered a major donor. For a well established nonprofit the minimum acceptable level of Board Giving might be $5000 with major donor status being reserved for those who can give or get $100,000 or more. This area can be further defined to reflect a column for personal giving and another for the "get" portion. The key is to be consistent with the message given to the Board members.

Governance too can be measured on a scale appropriate to the size and nature of your organization. For the small start-up basic involvement in Governance might be to attend 3 out of 4 annual Board meetings and be actively engaged in the discussions. Stellar participation in Governance might include successfully chairing a committee or educating Board colleagues in your area of expertise, such as ensuring that everyone understands the audit. For the large organization basic participation in Governance might not be so different, show up informed and ready to discuss policy at a majority of Board meetings and enhance the staff ability to implement those policies. Stellar Governance work might include serving as a Board leader and tackling difficult issues such as transitioning a Board culture or participating with the staff in union labor negotiations.

Here is a sample rubric that might serve the Board of a small start-up nonprofit.


Stellar Involvement Organizational Ambassador Major Donor Leader
Level of Involvement Hosts events in support of organizational goals Give or Get $5000 or more Leads Active Board Committee or serves as Officer
Helps arrange media coverage  Hosts fundraising event Prepares reports and analysis for Board Policy issues 
Attends Community events on behalf of organization Establishes connection with corporate or foundation grant opportunity Attends meetings and offers expertise of colleagues, such as in-kind legal help
Makes connections between this organization and others in which they're involved  Writes fundraising letters to circle of friends on behalf of the organization Attends meetings and serves on a committee
Writes letters on behalf of organization Personal donation matched by employer Attends meetings and volunteers time to assist staff
Acceptable Involvement Tells Friends about Organization Makes a Personal donation Attends 3 of 4 meetings


Here is a sample rubric for a larger, more mature nonprofit.


Stellar Involvement Organizational Ambassador Major Donor Leader
Level of Involvement Makes Organization a community priority Give or Get $50,000 or more Leads Active Board Committee or serves as Officer
Secures appropriate media coverage  Hosts Gala event, Planned giving  Prepares reports and analysis for Board Policy issues 
Arranges Community events on behalf of organization Establishes connection with corporate or foundation grant opportunity, purchases Gala table in addition to $10,000 Give or get Attends meetings participates in key decisions, union negotiations, search committee
Actively lobbies for organizational needs.  Introduces publishers to organization and seeks their support Writes fundraising letters to circle of friends on behalf of the organization: Give or get $10,000 Attends meetings and actively serves on a committee, brings in prospective Board members
Writes letters on behalf of organization Personal donation matched by employer Attends meetings and offers resources to Leadership team
Acceptable Involvement Tells Friends about Organization Makes a personal donation: total give or get of $5000 Attends 3 of 4 meetings



A great thing about rubrics is that they provide great flexibility. You can decide just how flexible you want to be. If a trustee is stellar in one are but not particularly involved in others you can decide how hard you are going to push to get that trustee more involved. If they give lots and lots of money but never come to meetings you can determine if this is acceptable.

Another idea that our organization did not pursue was to assign a numerical ranking to each box and then tally up "scores" for trustees. We opted not to proceed in this manner for a number of reasons. First, we were trying to avoid the pass/fail or "Good Board Member/Bad Board Member" label that would result. Secondly, the rubric gave some examples of participation but was in no way a complete picture of the kinds of participation that would be valued. A Board member might think of a new and creative way to raise money, or bring forward an advocacy opportunity that was unanticipated. The fact that we had not foreseen something to include it in the rubric doesn’t mean that it isn’t valued and indicative of valued Board participation. Finally, the scale that was settled upon may not reflect the efforts of each Board member. If all the Board members were local but for one who had to fly in from out of town for the meetings, we’d likely be more flexible about them not personally attending meetings.

The flexibility is also valuable as your efforts improve. When many trustees are stellar in an area you can raise the bar. Maybe it’s time to increase your give-or-get number. Perhaps Governance needs to be defined more clearly to focus the Board on policy and away from implementation. Perhaps it is a screaming cry to separate volunteer functions typically associated with grass roots organizations from the oversight work of the Board.

As the organization changes the rubric and the standards it measures can change too.


Perhaps the best use of the rubric is for coaching Board members to increase their participation in ways that best serve the organization. Rather than leaving trustees dangling in uncertainty about how to participate, supportive discussions can occur around "moving up" the scale. This creates an opportunity for a trustee to tell you, "I’d like to do more." Now that vague comment can be channeled into specific tasks to get them more involved.

Trustees can use the rubric for self-assessment. This can be compared to how Board leadership assesses that same Board member to help determine where there might be unrealized expectations or miscommunication before an irreparable break occurs.

The Board rubric is also a great tool for recruiting new trustees. Potential board members want to know what is expected of them. The rubric makes very clear from the start what the organizational expectations are for new members. You can build an entire orientation around the goals found in the rubric.


In addition to using the rubric to determine the strengths and weaknesses of individual Board members, the rubric can serve as a chart to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Board over-all. By overlaying the individual trustee assessments onto one rubric it becomes evident where your Board may need work. This might mean additional training to move the current Board members up the scale of involvement, or it may mean recruiting new Board members with some specific skills or connections.

Typically start-up organizations find that if they had to categorize their trustees according to the rubric they would find a large number who scored very highly on participation in Governance but not very highly in fundraising. This is because most start-up Boards are friends and family of the impassioned founder. They are the hands on helpers who get things done. A mature organization would hopefully find a well balanced group of folks, some who score highly in each area, or ideally, board members who score highly in many areas.


Creating and maintaining a rubric to assess Board member participation is a great exercise in Board development. It defines what constitutes appropriate Board participation in the key areas of Advocacy, Fundraising and Governance. And perhaps best of all, no one will be able to claim that they don’t know what they are supposed be doing as Board members.


The website of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (www.grdodge.org/assessment/index.htm) has a fantastic discussion of Assessment Rubrics along with some examples. If you really want to dive in you should read Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance by Grant Wiggins (Jossey-Bass, 1998). And, of course, you can contact us here at Finance Arts.

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David Gray is a Certified Financial Planner®, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ and President of Finance Arts, LLC, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit community. He has served as a Compliance Officer in the brokerage industry as well as Executive Director of a mid-sized nonprofit Arts organization. He can be reached at www.FinanceArts.com.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER and federally registered CFP (with flame logo), which it awards to individuals who successfully complete initial and ongoing certification requirements.