How can global development organisations ensure due diligence in board hiring and performance?

Governing boards for global development organisations have experienced rapid changes in expectation around how they operate over the last several years. Boards in the sector are being held to account for their conduct and ability to deliver on their organisations’ mandates with integrity. They are no longer in the position of simply adding credibility to an organisation’s brand. Boards are responsible for developing strategy, reviewing and maintaining finances, performance, output and culture, and are playing an increasingly critical role in the performance and success of their organisations.  

We have seen a greater need for board accountability and good governance as donors increasingly demand evidence of results, and there have been reports globally of impropriety, abuses, toxic culture and other issues on the part of global development boards. As these issues emerge, there are negative effects on the communities their organisations are meant to serve.  

Greater accountability means re-thinking models of leadership, how board performance is measured, and treating board appointments with the same diligence and care as would be applied to chief executives.   

Consider board composition 

Before searching for a board appointee, it is important to map what you already have in terms of current members’ competencies, experience, knowledge and perspective. Having an inventory or matrix of board composition lets you understand the strengths and vulnerabilities and expose the gaps you would like to see filled through a new appointment. This may include consideration for new avenues of influence an appointee can bring to the organisation for fundraising, diverse thinking capability, or identities and lived experience that might strengthen your board’s strategic decisions and governance.  

A key consideration is how to entrench a diverse and inclusive board culture in terms of both race, ethnicity, gender, etc. and in terms of the lived experience and perspective. Increasingly, global development organisations are committing to increasing decision-making power for local leadership, and ensuring their boards and leadership teams include individuals who represent the diversity of their wider organisation.  

When members serve on multiple boards, they contribute to the cross-fertilisation of ideas. This is integral to keeping groupthink out of the boardroom. An effective board challenges one another when it counts to drive innovation, value, and effective decision-making.   

Ensure transparency end-to-end 

This begins with being clear about the agreed skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours your organisation is looking for following the mapping of the current board composition.  During the recruitment process, it is essential to be transparent about potential candidates you can access and who you choose to approach. Criteria for selection and deselection, and the reasoning behind the ultimate appointment should be clearly understood as well.  

At times, the best way to ensure transparency during the process is to work with an objective third-party who can both work effectively with the selection committee and access candidates your organisation may not have otherwise found. SRI Executive has worked transparently advising, coaching and appointing boards for more than twenty years, and can facilitate a robust search process.  

Due diligence in finding the right fit 

In addition to finding a board appointee with the necessary experience, competencies, and diverse perspectives, there is an increasing need to understand a candidate’s behaviours before making a final decision.  

Measuring behavioural and ‘soft’ skills is understood as essential in the process of appointing a chief executive, but that same diligence is less readily applied to board appointments. Gathering evidence about a candidate’s behaviours and leadership style during the interview process can help raise flags for potentially damaging effects later on, from bullying and harassment to overall performance and results.  

Assessments including psychometric and behavioural assessments and scenario planning can be used effectively to narrow down a shortlist of candidates based on evidence around people. These tools create a fuller picture of candidates to support decision during key strategic appointments.  

When taking references for board appointments, the process is not the same as it might be when doing so for executives. It is important for referees to be able to speak to how a candidate has or will behave as a board member. Asking the right questions is key to probe for what isn’t being said, to uncover whether the candidate has the necessary behavioural competencies and experience.   

Good governance and performance once board appointments are made 

As more global development organisations evolve their approach to governance and leadership to adapt to changing a changing landscape and greater calls for board accountability, they are questioning the need to review board performance.  

Performance reviews are an integral part of supporting boards to increase their governance capabilities. Good governance may include an evidence-based conversation around board performance, through which organisations identify behaviours and areas of focus for their board both as a cohort and as individual leaders.  

Reviewing board performance can help boards identify areas in which practical support and development are needed. To prevent defensiveness and foster trust and facilitate a productive conversation, a third-party may be helpful throughout the process. A review of this kind might include self-evaluation, collective reviews or evaluation by a Board Chair, followed by a briefing and collective discussion about the best way forward. Performance reviews have proven an effective way to build a high-performing board.  


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