Insuring Transparency: Using the Self-Study Process in the Non-Profit Organization

The Jewish community has just completed 40 days of intensive self searching that began with the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul in mid-August and ended with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. This period was filled with a series of prayers focused on examining our lives and taking stock of the way we live, what we have achieved, what we want to achieve in the future, and how we will achieve it. It is a time of personal and family exploration and introspection as we build and strengthen our lives for the future.

The same holds true for an organization, and given that we are beginning a new year it is appropriate to think about how organizations conduct self-studies to review their mission and how they implement their services in the community. Many organizations are affiliated with national umbrella groups that either have regular accreditation processes or require the completion of self-study every few years. Whether or not an outside organization requests it, the self-study process is an important tool for the non-profit organization to demonstrate its accountability to the board, the staff and the community.

Although it is not feasible to implement a self-study every year there are a variety of approaches that can be implemented on an annual basis to provide the opportunity for the board and the staff to take a closer look at how the agency determines what it plans to do and how it provides services to the community. The most comprehensive approach is a full self-study that examines a number of issues including: the organization’s mission; how it was determined, and if it is it still valid; how the board of directors and the committees of the board function; how it implements its mission (what services are provided and how they are provided); how the staff is selected; how the staff is assigned; and what are the community’s and clients’ perceptions of the organization and its services.

Such a comprehensive study can take between 8 months and a year from start to finish. It begins with the appointment of a self-study committee and the assignment of an appropriate staff member(s) who will work with the committee throughout the process. Oftentimes, an outside consultant is engaged to facilitate the process although it is not necessary if there are staff resources within the agency that can dedicate time to the study.

Following the appointment of the self-study committee are several stages to the process:

  • Stage I – Clarifying the purpose, the scope and the focus of the self-study.
  • Stage II – Setting schedule for receiving information about the agency and for the meetings of the committee and for focus groups to receive input from the various stakeholders and interest groups.
  • Stage III – Analyzing the information collected and the input received from meetings.
  • Stage IV – Reporting to the self-study committee about the initial findings and the development of a written report including proposed recommendations for changes in policies and/or practices.
  • Stage V – Presentation of the self-study committee’s report to the board of directors including recommendations.
  • Stage VI – Appointment of a committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendations as well as a schedule of follow-up meetings to monitor the progress.
  • Stage VII – Reporting to the board of directors after six months and after one year so there can be some determination of the impact of the self-study process.

There is no question that this is a rather labor intensive process and it calls for an investment of the board leadership and the professional leadership of the organization. It is necessary to weigh the outcomes against the effort it takes to initiate and sustain the self-study. The benefits are felt by the organization as the changes are made that can increase not only the effectiveness and efficiency of the non-profit agency but also by publicizing what the organization has done to improve its services to the community.

In cases where the agency cannot make the full investment there are other ways of using pieces of the process to hold itself accountable for reviewing its functioning over the past year and what it hopes to achieve in the coming year. These steps provide an opportunity for some reflection on the way the board of directors functions and the services that are being delivered to the community. A board retreat can be planned to deal with some of these issues over a period a of day or two days. Of course it does not compare to the full self-study process but it does allow for the professional and volunteer leadership to hold itself accountable for the performance of the organization.

Whether it is through the full self-study process or through the use of a board retreat, the importance of reflecting on the purposes and functions of the organization cannot be overlooked. It is easy to become absorbed in the ongoing delivery of services and the pressing matters of governance and forget to take a step back and reflect on the agency’s overall mission and the nature of the contribution to the community. It is a worthwhile investment of time and effort and will yield much to the lay and professional development of the organization in much the same way we, as individuals, come away with a new understanding of issues as we work our way through the days from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul through Yom Kippur.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.