In February 2015, the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community published The Performance Imperative Campaign: A Framework for Social Sector Excellence. The Leap Ambassadors Community is a group of nonprofit leaders who are passionate about “inspiring, motivating and supporting nonprofit and public sector leaders (and their stakeholders) to build great organizations for great societal impact.”
The Performance Imperative offers a common definition of high performance, supported by seven pillars of highly effective organizations. The pillars range from leadership to management to evaluation for mission effectiveness. However, the pillar which has most recently captivated my interest and attention in much of my work with nonprofits is the fifth one: a culture that values learning.
The history of performance measurement and management for most nonprofits has been driven by external requests from funders to produce data for accountability and compliance purposes. As a result, too many nonprofits have been merely “checking the box” to meet what many lament as unfunded—or at least underfunded—mandates in producing data for interim or year-end progress reports. For some, the data requests seem irrelevant to their mission; for others the data seemed to disappear into a black hole. In both instances, nonprofit staff responsible for collecting and reporting data have done so with resentment and frustration. I’m not here to argue that compliance and accountability are without purpose but rather to suggest that there is a more productive approach.
When organizations change their mindset about measurement and reporting to be internally focused, to ask “What data do I need to best tell the story of our organization,” to emphasize continuous improvement program, the motivations are fundamentally changed in support of an organizational culture that values learning.
So what does a learning culture look like? In “Moving Beyond a Culture of Compliance to a Culture of Continuous Improvement,” a resource guide for Head Start Programs, we describe several key indicators, including curiosity, reflection, tolerance of failure and vulnerability, and use of feedback.
Here are some of the principles articulated in Pillar 5 of the Performance Imperative:
- The board, management, and staff take on the challenge of collecting and using information, not because it’s a good marketing tool and not because a funder said they have to. They believe it is integral to ensuring material, measurable, and sustainable good for the people or causes they serve.
- Senior management leads by example and encourages people throughout the organization to be curious, ask questions, and push each other’s thinking by being appropriately and respectfully challenging. High-performance cultures are innovative cultures, mindful that every program and process eventually becomes data, even obsolete.
- Senior management creates the conditions for staff members to feel safe acknowledging when there are problems. They use what others might deem failures as an opportunity for learning.
- Even the busiest leaders, managers, and staff members carve out some time to step back, take stock, and reflect.
For many nonprofits, this shift in thinking may seem daunting. But we have been working with nonprofits on a variety of initiatives, including most recently Measure4Change, and here are some things we are learning:
- The commitment to using data for program improvement and continuous learning needs to be owned by all members of the organization. While leadership will have a large role to play in setting both the tone and direction, these values need to be communicated, understood, and acted upon by staff from all levels. These values ideally should be reflected in mission statements, job descriptions, and even performance review criteria. Particularly important is the need to establish feedback loops for staff and leadership to openly share concerns and to check in periodically as new procedures are established. Additional tips can be found in our Measure4Change brief “Starting Small and Thinking Long Term.”
- Adopt more creative and nimble strategies for engaging staff in routine use of data. For many nonprofits, data reviews have been a sporadic event, often to meet a grant requirement or to produce the annual report, and most often these reviews were done by one or two staff members in the organization. New strategies and technologies are emerging to make data more available and useful to decision-making across agencies and nonprofits. Some of these include new employee orientation programs, soliciting feedback on types of reports that would be most useful to end users or stakeholders, or making data a routine part of staff and board meetings. Some organizations are getting creative with technology and broadcasting progress on a performance measure on TV screens in areas where clients are received. Part V of the Head Start Resource Guide reviews some of these strategies in greater detail.
- Develop systems for soliciting feedback from clients and other stakeholders about data plans, needs, and findings. A growing area of interest and engagement in the nonprofit sector is that of constituent or beneficiary feedback. In principle, beneficiary feedback is about listening to the intended beneficiaries of nonprofit programs, the people you are seeking to help. This kind of feedback can be helpful as nonprofits are designing programs, during program implementation, and even after the program concludes. Another strategy for sharing data with community stakeholders that’s quickly gaining in popularity is using Data Walks. Data Walks allow programs to share data and findings with community residents or other constituent groups, better improve program services, and engage residents as partners in interpreting findings.
If you haven’t already embarked on your journey to cultivate an organizational culture that values learning over compliance, hopefully this piece has sparked an idea or two you’ll be willing to try. Start small; add changes incrementally; bring staff and management along together. I am confident your efforts will be rewarded with positive results.
Mary Kopczynski Winkler is a senior research associate with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute where she heads-up the Institute’s Cross-Center Initiative on Performance Measurement and Management. She has more than twenty years of research and management experience on projects for Federal, state, and local government, as well as the nonprofit sector.