"High-performance organization" is a moniker that most any company, government agency, or nonprofit would love to earn. And yet who can say what "high performance" really means for nonprofits? More important, how do executives, boards, and funders get there from here?!
The Leap Ambassadors Community, a network of dozens of leading nonprofit leaders we've helped to convene, has invested a year developing clear, actionable answers to both questions. You can find them in the community's new release "The Performance Imperative: A framework for social-sector excellence" (PI).
We're not aware of any other effort devoted to this mission-critical topic that has engaged as co-creators so many top nonprofit executives, funders, and thought leaders. Perhaps even more importantly, the PI goes beyond the typical focus on helping nonprofit leaders do things right. When leaders do things right, they can achieve strong operational performance but not necessarily meaningful results for beneficiaries. To achieve the results embodied in their mission statements, leaders must go the extra mile, through diligent internal monitoring and external evaluation, to ensure they're also doing the right things.
We know the PI will come under fire from those who have a visceral aversion to anything that speaks of "outcomes." But the Leap Ambassadors feel strongly that the definition of "high performance" must reach higher than operational performance. It must set an organization on a journey toward real impact.
Here, in a nutshell, is the community's definition of "high performance": the ability to deliver—over a prolonged period of time—meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results for the people or causes the organization is in existence to serve.
And here are the seven organizational disciplines that, in our collective experience, lead most reliably to high performance:
- Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership
- Disciplined, people-focused management
- Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies
- Financial health and sustainability
- A culture that values learning
- Internal monitoring for continuous improvement
- External evaluation for mission effectiveness.
The full document, which we encourage you to download and share, fleshes out each one of these seven disciplines with concrete details that the Leap Ambassadors discussed, debated, and methodically vetted. (Some sections required us to work through more than 50 drafts.) We hope organizations and their stakeholders will use the details to guide their journey toward high performance.
In this era of rising needs, expectations, and demands, high performance matters more than ever. The social and public sectors are starting to steer resources toward efforts that are based primarily on rigor and evidence rather than good intentions and wishful thinking. They are increasingly favoring efforts that are based on a sound analysis of the problem, grounded assumptions about how an organization's activities can lead to the desired change, and leadership that embraces continuous improvement. This formula is at the core of the PI.
The launch of the PI marks the beginning of an ongoing campaign to inspire great organizations for greater societal impact. As part of this campaign, on March 19, GuideStar will be hosting "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Organizations," a free webinar featuring Leap Ambassadors Cynthia Figueroa, Jacob Harold, and Fay Twersky. These leaders will share why they invested their time in developing the PI, how they and other ambassadors will be putting the PI to use, and why high performance is essential for solving—rather than just salving—the "wicked problems" in our world.
Let's face it: High performance is not a lightning-fast meme. It's a slow, complex idea that is going to require painstaking, methodical work to advance.
What will that work entail? Atul Gawande, the Harvard surgeon and author, offered a compelling answer in his influential New Yorker article "Slow Ideas". To foster "a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching," the only approach that works is "people talking to people."
Yes, we should use modern tools like this e-newsletter, webinars, and social media to get the ball rolling. But to shift the mindset of our sector and society, we're going to need a lot of honest, person-to-person conversations between leaders who care deeply about the people and causes they serve. Leaders who've made great strides toward high performance can reach out to peers who are just starting out on that journey. Board members can engage their organizations' executives in conversations about what it will take to live up to their responsibility to serve their beneficiaries in the most effective way. Courageous funders can invite one-on-one conversations with grantees about how they can better support their pursuit of high performance. We encourage you to read the PI and then spark these conversations in whatever way is right for you and your organization.
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Mario Morino and Lowell Weiss
© 2015, Mario Morino and Lowell Weiss
Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason, and a member of the Leap Ambassadors Community.
Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors and a member of the Leap Ambassadors Community.