The Performance Imperative

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In the first part of this interview with Adrian Bordone, a Leap Ambassador, we heard about the extensive interest in Leap of Reason, and how the book stimulated a growing awareness that high performing organizations are those that take steps to measure performance and evaluate outcomes.

In this part of the interview, Adrian shares how a culture of learning is an important component of high performance. I also asked Adrian to drill deeper to explain a few of the 7 pillars identified in “The Performance Imperative: A framework for social-sector excellence” and I pushed back on the Leap Ambassadors Community’s urging that conducting an external evaluation is something that every high performing organization should do, because that just seems so unrealistic for many nonprofits. His responses, however, reinforce how important it is for the charitable nonprofit community to build the trust of supporters – and how important evaluating outcomes is in that process:

JC: “When thinking about what makes a high performing organization, the National Council of Nonprofits would add one more pillar: the capacity to be an advocate. Without taking away from any of these good principles in The Performance Imperative, we think that in order for a nonprofit to be high-performing it needs to be comfortable advocating for its mission with potential donors, as well as with elected officials and other policy makers. Are there other pillars that you’ve heard people suggesting?”

AB: “Yes, we’ve heard some great suggestions for our next iteration, including adding more emphasis—and perhaps a whole pillar—on advocacy. And we welcome any and all suggestions. The Leap Ambassadors Community is on its own journey—learning and sharing as we go. We want to improve our work—consistent with the Performance Imperative itself—with input from leaders with different views and experiences. We hope your readers will take a look at the pillars and the details underneath them, and then send us feedback. And, if The Performance Imperative resonates with them, help us spread the word.”

JC: “I don’t think anyone would quibble with the majority of these pillars, but it seems that the last pillar poses a significant challenge. Hiring a consultant to conduct an outside, independent evaluation of a nonprofit’s progress is an expensive proposition and unfairly makes “high performance” out of their reach.

AB: “Even before the public release of the framework, Pillar 7 provoked heated debate within the Ambassadors Community and pushback from some knowledgeable external reviewers. Those who counseled against including external evaluation as a pillar told us that it portrays naiveté about the limitations of evaluation consultants, ignores the fact that many organizations can’t afford the high costs of external evaluations, overstates the value of experimental designs, and fails to take into account recent innovations in the fields of data analytics.

We respect these criticisms. And we took them very seriously as we revised the details of this pillar multiple times. But we felt this framework would not stand strong without this pillar. Here was our rationale: 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 (i.e., “net impact”). With the exception of very rare cases, you can’t determine whether you’re doing so without engaging in some form of robust external evaluation.

But external evaluations are not the right prescription for every organization! For example, they may not be feasible or desirable for small organizations; organizations that are early in their journey to high performance and may not have the resources needed to act on the lessons an external evaluation might reveal; or organizations whose missions simply don’t lend themselves to evaluation. But external evaluation should be on the radar for organizations that aspire to change life outcomes.

Whether a nonprofit is big or small, it benefits all involved to seek input from beneficiaries served, as well as others external to the organization. Unbiased external feedback is essential to building a sector that can credibly provide sustainable solutions to challenges we face.

JC: “What do you find is the most challenging of these pillars for many nonprofits, and what suggestions do Leap Ambassadors offer to address those challenges?”

AB: “Interestingly, even with all the hubbub around Pillar 7, I don’t think that is the most challenging pillar.

I would say the most challenging one is Pillar 5: “Creating a culture of learning.” Nurturing a culture of honest introspection requires a lot of courage, backed by the kind of time-and-focus commitment few people are willing or able to make. Additionally, unless you’re a brand-new organization, you don’t have the chance to nurture a culture from scratch. Changing a culture requires shifting entrenched habits and norms that are hard to overcome from within. It’s equally hard to overcome them from the outside, because external forces are frequently rejected by a “host” body wedded to the status quo. 

Achieving a culture of learning is rarely celebrated and not readily visible; it’s what happens when no one is looking. It is the tireless and unglamorous work of true believers with practical skillsets that are not common in the general population. Until an organization fully moves out of a “culture of compliance,” a culture of learning remains fragile and susceptible to collapse. A true culture of learning is as difficult to sustain as it is to spark. 

In addition to the difficulty of shifting and sustaining a culture, organizations also can struggle with the learning part of the culture-of-learning equation. Learning requires a shared value system, vernacular, and commitment to adopting and revising standards—all of which require an agility and discipline that can be exhausting. It’s no accident that we often leave learning to the young. But we shouldn’t. To nurture a culture of learning, leaders of all ages need to summon that youthful spirit of curiosity—and couple it with the mature drive to keep getting better and better at meeting the needs of those whom they’ve dedicated their lives to serving. All of this is hard stuff—but infinitely worth it for truly mission-driven leaders!”

Learn more about The Performance Imperative and tools your nonprofit can adopt to become a learning community. 

To be transparent about how the Leap Ambassadors Community is measuring its own success in offering The Performance Imperative (PI) as a pathway to high performance:

What will success look like? Over the next two years:

  • At least 25 nonprofits commit to using the PI to assess their strengths and needs; increase the board’s focus on mission effectiveness; or improve their professional-development and organization-building efforts.
  • Three to five foundations adopt the PI for themselves and their grantees, and they begin to apply the PI in their grant decisions and grantee support.
  • Three charity ratings or information providers build the PI into their offerings.
  • At least two vendors prominently use the PI in their suites of products and services.
  • At least two prominent nonprofit management and leadership programs incorporate the PI as a core staple in their products and services.
  • At least one institution creates a prominent award aligned with the PI or adapts an existing award.

More about measuring your nonprofit's outcomes.


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