In this series I've been exploring the elements that contribute a high-performance culture. Performance need not be a goal only for highly competitive for-profit corporations.  Performance in any organization drives the impact it has: in the not-for-profit world high performance ensures the ongoing viability, relevance and effectiveness of an agency's mission in its community. 

Often, in not-for-profit organizations, annual performance reviews and comprehensive strategic planning sessions are skipped or postponed because of lack of time.  The needs of the people we serve are great and we have little time and even less funding to spare. This short-term thinking is a risk to the performance of our organizations.

By taking the time to engage everyone (clients, staff, volunteers, funders, community leaders and other people of influence) in strategic planning we can learn what we don't know and need to find out.  We can learn about resource gaps, and go about planning how to fill them.  We can learn about service and how it can be improved to reach more people better.  We can learn about upcoming trends and pressures on funding, and ask for advice and generate ideas about alternatives.  Continuous learning is one way agencies protect their viability and drive impact.  

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, 'high performance' isn't just a goal for corporations.  High performing not-for-profit organizations recognize that viability, relevance and effectiveness in community service organizations requires clarity and consensus across the organization on the goals.  

When employees know what the agency's short and long term goals are, understand how they can contribute to achieving them, are engaged in developing objectives with their team-mates,  and understand how their work will be evaluated and recognized, they are freer to be creative than if they are 'doing what we've always done'. 

When clients and their families participate in setting goals and in giving feedback on their service experience they are invested in the success of the agency and collaborate where they can. 

Funders are encouraged when agencies engage them in strategic planning and can measure progress toward specific goals. 

In short, people are more likely to enthusiastically follow leaders who know where they're going. 
A client once asked me to change the term 'high-performance' to 'high-impact' in a presentation.  He thought high-performance sounded too corporate. What? It has made me think a lot about how 'high-impact' is really achieved and why high performance seems like a corporate ideal.

Of course not-for-profits want to maximize their impact in the communities they serve, but fostering a high-performance culture is easily as important in not-for-profit organizations as it is in for-profit ones. The outcomes and measures will differ. A high performance culture will drive competitive advantage and profit in corporate settings.  High performance culture in not-for profit agencies will drive high-impact for the communities served.

Performance is the input. Impact is the output. 

Funders often ask for counts of things- how many people served, how many man-hours expended, and how much money spent, but these are simply inputs. Even these simple measures are hard to calibrate across the highly diverse social service landscape. High-performing not-for-profit organizations understand clearly the impacts they hope to achieve, and are measuring and managing key performance drivers (inputs) to maximize impact.

Some attributes of high-performance culture borrowed from corporate Canada translate pretty well to not-for-profit management: 
  • Clarity and Consensus on Goals, Building Trust
  • Talent Acquisition and Employee Engagement
  • Organizational Learning and Continuous Renewal 
  • Recognition and Rewards
In our blogs to come in the coming weeks, we’ll explore some of these these areas in more detail.  We hope to show that high-performance isn’t just a corporate term; it’s the goal for every leader.  

“There must be an app for that.”

Our clients often tell us during operational reviews that they need new or better systems – to assist in managing resources, evaluating performance, and fine-tuning operations processes.  Technology can help with these things, but it can’t replace thinking up front about the impact you're trying to have.  Many organizations get bogged down measuring or reacting to what the technology tells them to measure.  Poorly implemented systems can give you a whole lot of answers (in beautiful graphics) to questions you weren’t really asking, while the help you were really looking for remains elusive.

The smart project starts with the requirements.  What is the organization trying to achieve?  How will you know when you get there?  Are there processes or resources that offer a broad proxy measure of performance?  Figure out where you’re going, and two or three effective measures to test your progress on the path before you shop for technology or embark on a transformation project.

No systems solution is going to meet everyone’s needs, and many proponents of ‘plug-and play’ have been disappointed to find out that configuring a new system is almost as hard as building one might have been.  But if you start with well-understood and broadly supported requirements, you will know what you’re trading off when you buy a packaged solution, and can decide whether it’s worth it.

Many of Ontario’s social service agencies are exploring pan-sector information technology services and opportunities to integrate.  Before you embark on a new system implementation project (and before you pay a vendor), consider whether a clean-up of internal systems and databases, a systematic assessment of your current systems, and carefully articulated technology policy and requirements are needed first.  Agencies taking this approach will know their own needs and their own data best, and be in a great position to influence province-wide initiatives.  You may already have the app for that.