Just how healthy is your board?

Here’s a way to find out.

In a time of turmoil, change, challenge, and opportunity, it can be difficult for charities and not-for-profits to find the time to consider just how well their board is working. But if there was a tool to help them, would that make life easier for charities? How would it support their strategic directions and governance responsibilities? And what would that tool look like?

Now, thanks to Tanarra Philanthropic Advisors (TPA), there is a free digital automated Board Health Check that enables Australian not-for-profit boards to take their own temperature. 

After four months in the field, the Health Checks are providing compelling diagnoses into just how boards work – not just within themselves, with their range of skillsets and personalities but also how they support their organisation.

Paul Leitch, Chairman of Pathways to Resilience, acknowledged how the Health Check had worked for their board. “It made what we implicitly knew, explicit,’’ he said.

For Sharon Lawn, who is Chair and Executive Director of Lived Experience Australia (LEA) – which has a board of lived experience directors - the Health Check is a resource she and the board will come back to. “I suspect it’s something that I’ll want to do each year,’’ Sharon said. “It might be its own marker: it gives you a bit of a guide and it’s one you can look to the future and revisit every now and again. Just to check in, reflect, and it gives you that energy.’’

The testimonials underline the broader purpose Tanarra sought to achieve from the Health Check itself: to help boards strengthen themselves so that they can deliver on their organisation’s strategic vision.

TPA CEO Lisa Kingman explained that the Health Check focused on several key areas, including general board effectiveness, general conduct, meetings (and structure), financials and compliance and strategic alignment.

Tanarra Philanthropic Advisors provides low bono and pro bono high level independent strategic and financial advice to charities about how to structure themselves and operate to enable them the best possible prospects of achieving their mission. 

The Health Check fits neatly into that remit: it has been developed from the Tanarra investment and TPA teams years of boardroom and charity sector experience, combined with the support from the Governance Institute of Australia, and technology management consultant Dave Bonnett. The design and structure of the automated tool involved frequent testing to ensure maximum useability across almost 18 months.

While there are similar ideas available overseas, this Board Health Check is free and TPA believes it is an Australian first

Lisa said Tanarra was “consistently getting questions from charities’’ about governance issues. The Board Health Check goes some way to providing a ready-made set of answers to those questions.

It features multiple-choice questions and some commentary responses, all designed to ensure that it is not time-consuming to fill out but still helps identify areas of agreement or difference between directors. 

Individual director’s participation in the survey is anonymous. Once you’re registered, the survey will remain open for three weeks. The report generated at the end of the process will, according to Lisa, show an organisation’s strengths, provide pointers to areas of improvement and some recommendations.

“It incorporates practical ideas to address areas for improvement and build on their strengths. Healthy boards should translate to healthy charities and that means greater social change regardless of whether the focus is on homelessness, conservation, or cancer,” Lisa said.

Organisations with an already well-developed sense of their ethical responsibilities and governance requirements will still find plenty of value in the Health Check. As Sharon explained, LEA was confident of its processes. “We’ve had a number of other organisations that have mirrored our governances and processes and equally we’ve looked out – ‘Yes, we need to focus on these particular areas of governance to make sure we’ve got all ours ‘I’s’ dotted, and our ‘T’s’ crossed,’’ she said. “So, we’ve always been diligent about that and that means we’ve always been focused on the ethics of how we do things.’’

Sharon used her organisation’s result as “a great foregrounding’’ to a recent two-day national meeting. “The plan was always to use it as a tool to sit down with the current board, have a look at the areas that were identified in it, the areas we were doing well in and the areas we could improve in, seeing how much it would guide us in the next two-three, five years, our aspirations and have a good old discussion with the board,’’ she said.

The usefulness of the tool is that it offers valuable self-analysis, regardless of the board’s experience.

Pathways to Resilience is a not-for-profit trust, with a national focus on delivering workshops and programs that support well-being and resilience among young Australians, their families, and teachers. About 12 months ago, its board was recast so, the Health Check provided the organisation with a good opportunity to see how it was travelling.

“It told us how we were going, the way in which we were set up and it told us that our communications were very good, there was a strong alignment between our organisation executive and the board, that the board was doing a good job and getting our sleeves rolled up,’’ Paul said.

But it also identified some challenges, which Paul says they are working on with a rebranding campaign. “The improvement areas were where we’ve been putting our efforts – in to rebranding – and getting a clearer idea of who we’re up against, who our competition is [in this space],’’ Paul said.

Sharon’s board has a different genesis and recent history. LEA was established in 2002 as the Private Mental Health Consumer Carer Network but it now provides national advocacy in a range of mental health settings – including private sector mental health services - for consumers, families, and carers.

“We’ve got a board that’s completely a lived experience board, and a very cohesive group of people who for the most part get along very well, and that’s one of the good things about the board,’’ she said. “Ultimately, they are a diverse group of people.’’

After the organisation became a company limited by guarantee six years ago, LEA started to move toward more project and advocacy work. “So, it’s shifted the board make-up and roles,’’ Sharon explained. “There’s more emerging, there’s a whole world of advocacy out there happening, with lots and lots of younger people, people from all the diversity of populations. It’s a very lively space, it’s a very political space: it seemed logical that it was the next step in really consolidating and thinking about how we go forward and prepare for that.’’

“Although our board members currently have incredible skills in their areas, they’ve been there a long time,’’ Sharon said. “It is an ageing board and that was really important to consider the future, not just the present.’’

The on-going value for the Board Health Check resource is that it delivers the opportunity to reflect – on perhaps why a couple of board members might not be as engaged as others, the challenge of keeping the board enthused through the proliferation of digital meetings and even to foster meaningful board relationships that can underpin candid discussions. As Sharon said: “This area is so frenetic, you get swept up and carried away...without stopping and thinking.’’

The Board Health Check could be the way to not only take the temperature of an organisation’s board, but also get a sense of how fit it is for the future.

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