Kicking off the new year of board leadership learning

November 6, 2018


For those of us involved with the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Series, each New Year actually begins in the fall. We leave the champagne and hugging for January, but we do a pretty good job in October of looking ahead with a sense of hope and new possibilities. Our New Year’s resolutions are not about diet or exercise or staying in touch with old friends but rather about organizational effectiveness and impact in the social sector in New Jersey. 

David Grant
David Grant

As facilitator of the opening workshop in the series, I get to remind the nonprofit board members and executive leaders in the room that we can’t pursue our resolutions by trying harder – that’s almost impossible to do in a stressed and overworked sector. We have to pursue them by thinking differently about what we are doing. 

Towards that end this year, I introduced a new framework for thinking about nonprofit effectiveness called The Performance Practice, created by The Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, of which I am a member. The framework names six “pillars” of high performance for nonprofits and presents specific practices organizations can follow to build effectiveness in those areas. (A seventh pillar regarding periodic outside evaluation applies to larger, national organizations.)   

I hope readers of this blog post will click on the link above and consider The Performance Practice in full.  But I’d like to share here some personal thoughts about the pillars, saving the first and most important pillar for last. 

Pillar Two is disciplined, people-focused management. This pillar is shaky in the social sector. We assume management is necessary in the corporate sector but less critical in small organizations of people working together towards a social mission. In many nonprofits, we expect the same executive director who is the outward face of the organization, often its chief fund-raiser, ambassador and program expert, to also be a one-person HR department – and with little or no training in management. The Performance Practice addresses what good managers do to attract and retain valuable employees (and board members), such as creating workplans, providing feedback, and providing incentives. It also reminds board members that they are the managers of the executive director and that well-managed people get better at what they do. 

Pillar Three is well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies. This is the pillar the rest of the world sees every day, and it gets lots of ongoing attention from staff and board members. But are we always clear about whom we serve?  And have we set up ways to learn from them? Do we have an evidence-based theory of change behind the design of our programs? Are we looking at data on results? Are we designing our programs within the context of the larger ecosystem in which we operate? Questions like these from The Performance Practice can up our game in Pillar Three. 

Pillar Four is financial health and stability.  This is the existential pillar, the one executive directors wake up in the morning worrying about.  In smaller nonprofits, this pillar is often understaffed, and financial systems lag behind as organizations grow. And it is often undernourished by boards who have not been organized and trained in the tasks of friend-raising and fund-raising. Work on Pillar Four is crucial, and there are lots of professional resources available to help us, but I have always believed that the best way to build financial health and stability is to be sure the other pillars are strong. We have to have people, programs, processes and an impact on the world worth supporting.  

Pillar Five is a culture that values learning.  Many organizations embrace this pillar in theory but not in practice. For Pillar Five to have substance, there must be enabling structures to support our good intentions. In particular, there must be time set aside for divergent thinking, for reflection, for reading and discussion, for processing and learning from mistakes, for refinement of mission and vision statements, for analyzing data, for future planning, and for working through differences of perspective. I call this mission time. Scheduling it is hard to do. Protecting it from the urgent demands that distract organizations from ongoing learning is even harder. But you can’t build Pillar Five without mission time. 

Pillar Six is internal monitoring for continuous improvement.  This pillar has enormous potential to improve organizational performance when nonprofit leaders understand its power. We do pay attention to how things are going, and we always want to do better.  But what are we monitoring? Unless we slow down enough for ongoing learning (Pillar Five), we notice and measure what is easily quantifiable – “numbers served” or a rating of “highly satisfied” on a program evaluation. But how well were those people served? And did satisfaction with a program lead to any changes in behavior in the weeks and months that followed? The key to Pillar Six is creating an internal assessment system that uses qualitative as well as quantitative metrics to define and shape performance, not judge it after the fact. I elaborate on this theme, if not beat it into the ground, in my book The Social Profit Handbook. 

Finally, there is the pre-eminent Pillar One: courageous and adaptive executive and board leadership. None of the other pillars gets strong and remains strong without Pillar One. It takes courage to stay passionately committed to a mission, to define and insist upon high performance from staff and board members, to look unflinchingly at data, to listen carefully to those we serve, to create and protect mission time and be patient while people learn to use it, and to champion values of diversity, equity and inclusion if they have not been part of an organization’s history and DNA. 

And if we can’t adapt as our organizations themselves grow and develop in a changing world, we will fall short of our own aspirations for effectiveness and impact. 

I love the overarching metaphor of building these six pillars to support high performance.  The task is formidable and has many dimensions.  But we have to start somewhere, with a picture in our heads of what we are striving to build together.  The New Year beckons, and construction can start whenever we put our minds to it.