During our “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Organizations” webinar on March 19th, we only had time to discuss a small fraction of the questions that came in from participants. We asked Lowell Weiss, president of the Cascade Philanthropy Advisors and a Leap Ambassador, to provide answers to some of the many great questions left in the queue at the end of the webinar.
Q: As a leader who desires to step up to excellence, how can I inspire the team to up their game to meet the performance standard without creating stress? When you talk about “standards and accountability,” some in the nonprofit sector see it as “corporate.”
A: You have to start by engaging your staff in developing the mission-focused rationale for upping the organization’s game. If you engage them fully in the “why” part of the process, then you’ll have much more luck with the “what” and “how.” If you don’t, they might comply with the new systems you put in place, but they’ll do so in a rote, begrudging, check-the-boxes way—rather with than with a creative, learning mindset.
I will point you to an essay on this topic that you might find useful: “Managing to Outcomes: Mission Possible,” by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, who was the executive director of Year Up, National Capital Region when she wrote the essay. Ty, who has worked in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, makes the case that introducing performance standards in the nonprofit sector is quite consistent with the mission-driven nature of most nonprofits. “Most nonprofits attract people who have self-selected based on the mission of the organization,” Ty wrote. “As a result, the nonprofit professionals’ passions and interests usually align directly with their organization’s reason for existence. Such an alignment gives these professionals intrinsic motivation. The assumption underlying the typical performance-management system in the for-profit world is the need for extrinsic motivators.” Ty goes on to profile some of the ways that Year Up’s founder and CEO has engaged his staff in sensitive, humble, high-EQ ways. I urge you to read the whole essay, which you can download from this page.
Q: Congrats - Great work and info!! Any suggestions of how to encourage one’s organization to embark upon this rigorous process? I fear that only a crisis in funding will make most orgs agree to explore change. Any thoughts?
A: Yes, it sometimes takes external motivators, like a funding crisis, to get organizations to make difficult changes. Back in the 1980s, an authority in the field of change management shared his view with my colleague Mario Morino that dramatic personal change doesn’t happen until what you had stops or is taken away, such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, job loss, divorce, or financial ruin. The same kind of thinking applies to organizations as well.
But in keeping with my answer above (and drawing from Dan Pink’s fascinating book Drive), I believe that appealing to internal motivators can be even more powerful. During the webinar, Cynthia shared the following quotation from Bridget Laird, the CEO of WINGS for Kids: “If we don’t know we’re making a difference, then there’s no reason to be doing what we’re doing. We can’t sleep at night if we don’t know we’re making an impact.” WINGS for Kids is on the path to high performance not because it was forced to by external conditions. They’re on the path because Bridget and her team are burning to know whether they’re actually improving the lives of the kids they work with—and to know how they can keep getting better and better at what they do. That’s best motivator of all!
Whether the driver is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a combination of the two, you will need at least one top leader to trigger the organization to be more introspective about its performance and how it can improve. That trigger could come from the lead executive, a key board member, or a senior member of the leadership team. Ultimately, if the lead executive does not become a true champion, the journey doesn’t get very far.
Q: Can we hear a little more about what is considered “external evaluation?” Are we talking about external consultants [doing] evaluations? Or translating our internal evaluation … to the external world?
A: It’s the former. We’re referring to partnering with academic institutions or evaluation consultants to build upon and complement the monitoring you do internally.
When it comes to organizations that aspire to improve life outcomes, the ultimate manifestation of high performance is making a meaningful difference for the people you aspire to benefit beyond what would have happened anyway. But for very rare cases, you can’t determine whether you’re doing so without engaging external evaluators in some capacity.
Let me be clear: Robust external evaluations are not right prescription for every organization! For example, these evaluations are neither feasible nor desirable for small organizations, organizations that are early in their journey to high performance, or organizations whose missions simply don’t lend themselves to evaluation. But they should be on the radar for larger, more established organizations that aspire to change life outcomes. When nonprofits use methodologies that line up well with the organization’s stage of development and learning needs, they can produce invaluable insights for mission-driven leaders.
Q: How robust is this data for Youth Villages? What type of research has been done? RCTs?
A: Research on outcomes, including through randomized controlled trials, is core to the organization’s high-performance journey. You can get all the details on this page.
Q: Are any of you familiar with the Baldrige Performance Excellence model? If so, how would you compare that program’s principles with those of The Performance Imperative.
A: Yes, we are familiar with the Baldrige model, admire it, and think it is quite concordant with the PI. One of the Leap Ambassadors, Julie Russell, is involved with the Missouri Quality Award, which is modeled after Baldrige.
The Baldrige model and the PI are similarly grounded in helping organizations achieve great results through continuous learning and improving. We suspect that the principles making up each of PI’s seven pillars may provide a level of specificity that would complement the Baldrige model well. (For anyone who is not familiar with the Baldrige model and how it applies to nonprofits, check out this brief overview.)
As a loosely related aside, one of my worst days as a White House speechwriter was on February 4, 1999, the day I accompanied President Clinton to an event celebrating the winners of the Baldrige National Quality Awards. Long story short: the President didn’t use a word of the speech I wrote and gave a much better one off the cuff—giving me a humbling lesson in how little that great communicator needed my help.
Q: I would assume that the pillars would be an important aspect of orienting new board members.
A: Absolutely! At the very least, it provides the basis for a board and management team to discuss the state of operational performance to understand strengths and where work is needed. Ideally, it could even help a board and management team reset its expectations for its performance.
I have been working with a local human-service organization whose CEO just shared the PI with his entire board. He acknowledged to his board that the organization is not “clicking on all pillars” today. He wanted the board to see the PI so they would understand the importance of asking tough questions about each of the core disciplines represented in the PI—and the importance of investing new resources to strengthen those disciplines. I hope he will also use the PI for orienting new board members to the journey that his organization has embarked upon.
Q: Is there a template for implementation? That is, do you have steps necessary to implement pillar number X, the results can be measured by these data Y?
A: Not yet. Several Leap Ambassadors are starting by developing self-assessments for their organizations, to help them assess where they stand with respect to each pillar and gauge their progress in addressing gaps. We hope the next step is that universities and membership organizations step forward to develop workshops, bootcamps, management courses, and e-learning opportunities that are tailored to help organizations in specific fields implement the PI. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has done this kind of thing very well through their Open School free online courses. We could learn a lot from their approach.
The preceding is a guest post by Lowell Weiss, President Cascade Philanthropy Advisors. Through his work at Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, Lowell provides personalized guidance to a wide range of foundations and individual donors seeking to deepen their impact. He provides comprehensive oversight of messaging for the Leap of Reason Initiative, serves as the lead writer and editor for all Morino communications, and is co-editor of Leap of Reason.
Prior to starting Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, he served in a leadership role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College. Lowell lives in Seattle with his two children, Sandor and Michela.