Praise, Instruct, Evaluate: How to Help Your Board Members Develop Skills

When I was in graduate school at Louisiana State University, I audited a life-changing course on pedagogy.

How could pedagogy, the study of instruction itself, be life changing?

It involved a souffle cup of cherry pie.

One day, our professor Dr. Kennedy brought in a tray of souffle cups, each filled with a single spoonful of cherry pie.

As she walked among the desks, handing out the souffle cups, she told us about the praise/instruct/evaluate model.

First, she said, you praise the student’s work. You talk about what has been done well in the current assignment and the progress they’ve made.

Next, she said as she continued to weave through our desks with the remaining souffle cups, you instruct the students in how to correct the errors they’ve made. Do not criticize them for their errors; instead, instruct them on how to improve.

Finally, she said, lowering the tray as a student received the last of the souffle cups, you evaluate the student’s work. Assign the grade only after you’ve praised their work and progress and instructed them on improvements.

This set of instructions on the nature and best practice of instruction itself changed the way I looked at my personal interactions, not just how I worked with my students to learn how to be better writers.

I realized immediately that this was the kind of instruction I’d needed all my life but had rarely received. I knew it was how I would need to interact with others from that point on. It’s what we all want and need.

How does this apply to nonprofit boards?

If you’ve got board members who need help—and what organization doesn’t?—then apply this model.

  1. Praise a board member’s work up to now. No board member is an utter failure; find out what he or she is good at and praise it.
  2. Ask if the board member is open to feedback. If she or he says yes, then offer instructive suggestions about something that’s a sticking point for him or her. It’s easy enough to observe what these are, and even easier is to offer instructive suggestions about something the board member has noted already.
  3. Evaluation in this case won’t involve letter or number grades. Instead, return to the previous praise and, if there’s a parallel between it and the sticking point—that is, if the board member has skills in one area and could apply them to a problem in a different area—then offer that as an observation. Or find another way to recommend steps to take. Be prepared before going into the conversation. Evaluate for growth.

I learned more in Dr. Kennedy’s class that I’d ever learned before, including having taught college students myself during my master’s program and having had a mother who was a university instructor. Of the many things I took with me from that course, the praise/instruct/evaluate model was one of the longest lasting.

Praise, instruct, evaluate, and watch your board members blossom.

Good reading from PwC.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers published its 2021 Annual Corporate Directors Survey (which I downloaded via Fortune and which can be downloaded directly here). They devote much of the report to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns and how boards are reacting to the societal demands being made of them.

This applies equally to nonprofit boards: As society shifts its views on what used to be common (if not equitable) practice, nonprofit boards will need to examine themselves and their policies to ensure they continue being a good fit for their communities.

Eight Characteristics of Good Volunteer Management

One worry of a nonprofit that relies on its membership for volunteers is how to make sure a given volunteer is going to work out. Volunteer coordinators can be left with volunteers who do not match a given job—and sometimes who match no job. What can be done? And how could this have been prevented?

Although nonprofits and volunteers differ, I’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—what some of the characteristics of good volunteer practice are.

1. The set of volunteers for a task is fit for purpose.

‍First, volunteers must be up to the job. They must have the competencies they need, starting with the challenges facing them. What are the skills, knowledge, and experience the volunteers need? How well matched are current volunteers’ attributes to their current needs? The volunteer coordinator must have this information available, as must the membership. Information such as this can provide a valuable pre-vetting role, in effect allowing for a given member’s self-vetting before applying, which saves time and effort and prevents disappointment.

Although few volunteer coordinators have complete control over their own membership and thus their volunteer base, boards can increase their membership’s awareness of the current strengths and relative weaknesses found in the volunteer base. For good practice, volunteer coordinators also need active onboarding processes that ensure new volunteers are integrated and trained. Individuals should be able to participate in volunteer roles and be effective contributors from the day they start.

2. Roles are clear and provided in documents available to all.

Simply put, a volunteer coordinator has the responsibility of providing effective direction and control to one or more non-board volunteers. There will be some pointers to this in most organization’s documents, especially if the organization has developed to the point of understanding its need for a volunteer coordinator. Equally, a volunteer has the responsibility of providing the organization with the agreed-upon work. What both need is job information against which they can align members’ (generally) and volunteers’ (specifically) expectations. An effective volunteer coordinator ensures that this is a live document that provides real-time guidance in the conduct of volunteer activities.

3. Organizational purpose is clearly defined‍ and provided in documents available to all.

Nonprofit institutions exist to serve a mission, and volunteers offer their help to further that mission. Any board of directors that cannot state clearly why its organization exists is not going to be able to rally volunteers to service. In addition, this clear statement of purpose must be included in the documents given to volunteers. What is the organization’s purpose, who does it benefit, and how? Plain and simple, this is good governance. Clarity helps decision making, including down to the level of the individual volunteer: if the organization’s mission resonates with the individual, it is easier for the individual to commit time and effort (and sometimes money) to the position.‍

4. The volunteer coordinator has skillful use of policy leverage‍.

Volunteer coordinators may have full-time accountability for everything done by the volunteers. Some decisions cannot wait until they receive a time slot on the agenda of the next board meeting. Volunteer coordinators need a way to make decisions that affect volunteers, which means the board must be willing to devolve that decision-making power. Boards can do this by, first, defining what the volunteer coordinator is to achieve, and second, what the volunteer coordinator should avoid. In other words, boards need to know clearly what they want and what they don’t want. Getting the thoughts of experienced volunteer coordinators is important when developing the policies for the devolving of decision making.

5. No-surprises policy plus teamwork with the board and other high-level stakeholders is standard practice.

The relationship between the volunteer coordinator and the board can be delicate at times. The volunteer coordinator is caught between the real-life needs of the volunteers and the high-level aspirations of the event or practice that the board has established and for which the volunteers have been called. The board depends on the volunteer coordinator to distribute resources so that the volunteers can produce results. Boards and volunteer coordinators learn quickly where the weak points are. For good governance, boards must be explicit about their volunteer coordinator’s responsibilities and degree of decision-making autonomy. Using an active, transparent evaluation process and open, honest communication will help, and should things go pear shaped, clarity and detachment—and possibly a third party called in to help—can make cleanup easier. From the start, a no-surprises policy, where information is shared regardless of repercussions, can keep larger problems from growing out of smaller ones.

6. Strong, informative reports get sent to the board‍.

Volunteer coordinators largely work outside of the board’s regular meetings. During a given event where volunteers are working, the volunteer coordinator should be closely involved, but the board should be hands off. Strong, informative reports to the board both before and after events help the volunteer coordinator be intentional about how volunteer time is spent. These reports, as part of the organization’s institutional memory, give the board firm basis for both the present and the future.

7. Volunteers receive information tailored to their needs‍.

A common volunteer refrain is that they do not feel fully informed, and they worry that the board is equally uninformed. There may be some truth to this: Board members often complain that they receive poor-quality information even when receiving high-quantity information, which can lead to boards dipping into the work that has been delegated to non-board members. Good volunteer coordinator practice filters information to volunteers so that it is appropriate for their needs while providing a view of the larger purpose, and equally importantly, providing solid, actionable information to the board via reports (see #6 above).

8. Volunteer performance is under active review‍.

Performance reviews for volunteers can be tricky for volunteer coordinators to handle. On the one hand, volunteers are just that—voluntary workers—and judging them by external standards may seem inappropriate. On the other hand, organizations suffer when volunteers are wrongly assigned, not only because morale suffers but also because the organization’s image can suffer. Letting volunteers know that reviews are intended to support the organization’s broader strategy may relieve some of their apprehension. Ensuring that reviews employ the “praise/instruct/evaluate” model can also help. Ultimately, good boards use performance reviews that are appropriate for volunteers and board appointees.

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