Becoming a High-Performance Nonprofit

Glyn Northington

High performance.

Previously when I heard those words, the first things that came to my mind were high-performing vehicles like race cars – high-performing technology such as powerful medical scanners – or high-performance athletes like Olympic gold medalists.

Now, though, thanks to the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community and The Performance Imperative, and some amazing peers and leaders I have had the privilege to learn with over the past 6 months, today when someone says high performance, I respond with “nonprofit organizations”!

A group of nonprofit leaders, the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, developed a North Star, called the Performance Imperative, to help guide the continuous growth and evolution of nonprofits. The Ambassadors started by defining “high-performance,” and then by identifying seven organizational pillars that can help nonprofits become high performing.

What I particularly like about the high-performing definition developed by the Ambassadors –

High performance is 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

– is that the definition perfectly captures what nonprofit executive directors, staff, boards and volunteers are dedicated to doing. Almost without exception, the people I have met working in nonprofit organizations are striving to:

  • Provide meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results for their clients
  • Be the best they can be – they want their organizations to be high-performing, excellent, and successful.

This definition also aligns very well with how Propel Nonprofits (formerly Nonprofits Assistance Fund and MAP for Nonprofits) talks about sustainability, as was outlined in a blog from November 2012 entitled Sustainability – Not a myth, but not what you may think. In that blog Kate Barr, President & CEO of Propel Nonprofits, saw sustainability as an integrated approach to remaining vital and relevant in the community with three key aspects: Do great work, make the business work, and adapt and change. The definition of high performance is all about doing great work.

Then the seven pillars from the Ambassadors define what foundations or supports need to be in place for high performance. The pillars are all the areas leaders are always trying to strengthen: leadership, management, programs, financials, culture, monitoring, and evaluations. When looking at the seven pillars, I believe many nonprofits are high-performing or nearing high performance in one or more of the pillars, which gives them something to celebrate while also continuing to work hard on the other areas in their organizations.

During the past six months, I have had the opportunity to dive deeper into The Performance Imperative with a variety of remarkable organizations and leaders:

  • In Grand Rapids, MN, Propel Nonprofits leads a learning series with Itasca County nonprofit organizations, supported in part by Blandin Foundation, where we focused on The Performance Imperative during the spring, and will continue with that theme in the fall. The Itasca County nonprofits have starting exploring the pillars that support high-performing nonprofits, including executive and board leadership; diversity in staff and programming; and workforce excellence including generational differences, succession planning, and volunteer engagement. This fall we’ll continue with sessions exploring additional pillars.
  • At the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits/Propel Nonprofits’ Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference, Adrian Bordone, vice president of strategic partnerships at GuideStar and a Leap Ambassador, challenged the nonprofits leaders in attendance to identify what individual leaders and organizations, as well as the nonprofit sector as a whole, can do to move high-performance standards and goals forward for the good of the clients we serve.
  • At the same conference, Kate Barr volunteered to convene a book group to discuss the book Leap of Reason with nonprofits in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota communities that are striving to become high performing. That book club gathered with more than a half dozen nonprofit leaders in attendance, and the discussion was insightful and robust.

The Leap of Reason Ambassadors, as well as my peers in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota, are all encouraging and inspiring each other to build the strongest nonprofits possible for our individual clients and for society. It is exciting to think what incredible work we can continue to do if we all strive to be high performing.

So the next time someone says “high performance,” say “nonprofit organizations” – and share what you are doing to deliver “meaningful, measurable and financially sustainable results” for all.

Staff Author

Glyn Northington