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Small, But Mighty: Seven Ways Small Nonprofits Can Boost Their Performance

Small, But Mighty: Seven Ways Small Nonprofits Can Boost Their PerformanceOn June 6, 2018, more than 500 participants (81 percent representing small nonprofits with less than $3M in annual revenue) joined SHALVA’s Board President Sara Block, Executive Director Carol Ruderman, and me in the “Small, But Mighty: Seven Ways Small Nonprofits Can Boost Their Performance” webinar, moderated by GuideStar Vice President and Fellow Ambassador Adrian Bordone. You can view the webinar recording here. 

Over the course of the 90-minute session, participants heard how the Leap Ambassadors Community collaboratively developed the Performance Imperative (PI)—a definition of high performance and seven disciplines for achieving it. In the initial hour, I interviewed SHALVA’s leadership about their journey, provided tips for less-resourced nonprofit leaders, and then responded to a rich set of questions for the final 30 minutes. 

Actionable Steps for Small Nonprofits on the Journey to High Performance 

Since a clear majority of nonprofits in the U.S. (up to 88 percent, according to Urban Institute) are classified as “small,” Fellow Ambassador Karen Walker and I, along with 10 other Leap Ambassadors with experience working for and with small nonprofits, felt an urgency to communicate actionable entry points for leaders of small organizations eager to begin their own journeys to high performance. Our passion led to the development and publication of “Small, But Mighty: The PI for Small Nonprofits.” 

With concrete examples from SHALVA’s experience ($1M annual revenue) on their journey to high performance, we discussed ideas for using the definition of high performance, translating the seven pillars into action, and breaking the process down into bite-sized pieces that organizations of any size can take on.  SHALVA’s three-year journey is funded as a capacity-building grant from the Michael Reese Health Trust. 

Tips to Get Started 

Here are some tips for using the PI as a guiding framework to help any dedicated leader to get better and doing good. High performance is a mindset, an attitude, a commitment, and it doesn’t take funding or a consultant to get started. Rather it takes drive. Specifically, we suggest: 

  • Pose a new open-ended question to board members, staff, and volunteers. The conversation can start to change culture toward high performance. For example:
    • What information or results do you need to be a better board member?
    • What data do you need to do your job better?
    • Do you have the right data you need to make informed decisions? 
  • Review the Performance Imperative (only 14 pages), find a pillar or a specific principle that resonates, and take initial steps toward achieving it. 
  • Share the PI intro video (4 minutes) with your grantees, board, or senior staff and facilitate a discussion about people’s reactions. Make the next meeting focused on action steps, one at a time. 

What You Need to Know 

Here’s a sampling of questions you may be wondering about as well: 

Q: We’re a small organization with a $500,000 budget. Do you have any specific ideas/tips for how we can shift our culture to become more data-informed without investing many dollars (that we don’t have)?

A: I see it as similar to building a website. You need one, right?  So, you have several options.  You can spend $500 and DIY; you can spend $5-50K to hire a consultant; you can consider it part of ongoing strategy to success and hire an in-house communications person.  Even moving from oral knowledge to paper or separate paper files to a shared Excel document are moves in the right direction.  Check out other examples we have in the Performance in Practice section of the website. 

Q: As a funder interested in using the PI with grantees that are smaller nonprofits, how might I begin the conversation? 

A: We recommend having intentional conversations with your grant partners. Consider sharing the PI with them including the intro video and asking them to consider what might be helpful—training in a specific pillar, convening a cohort of grantees to discuss a certain area, webinars for geographically disparate organizations.  

Q: Can a nonprofit start with Pillar 1 without an involved and engaged board of only three members who don’t donate, network, or fundraise? 

A: YES! We find that once you clarify and document your vision and mission, you’re in a much better position to engage your board and recruit new board members.  Another important initial step is to gather feedback from your constituents and share that feedback to help guide you and your board. 

Take the First Step on Your Journey 

If you also believe that “the journey to high performance is for nonprofits of all sizes, and it’s worth the trip” then explore the materials—all available at no cost—at the Leap Ambassadors Community website.  We hope you’ll take your first step on the journey and let us know what you’re learning along the way!

Small, But Mighty: Seven Ways Small Nonprofits Can Boost Their PerformanceDebra is a national expert and influential social-sector thought leader who guides motivated leaders toward high performance. Through DBN & Associates, L3C, she facilitates processes to define social change based on verifiable client results, designing and implementing continuous improvement practices. As an active member of the Leap Ambassadors Community, she initiated and co-led the effort that resulted in Small, But Mighty: The Performance Imperative for Small Nonprofits.

Topics: High-performing nonprofits nonprofit effectiveness nonprofit performance Small Nonprofits Performance Imperative Leap of Reason