The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 28, 2015

Seven disciplines for social-sector excellence

April 28, 2015

“High-performance organization” is a moniker most organizations—private, public, or nonprofit—would love to earn. But what does “high performance” really mean for mission-based nonprofits?

The Leap Ambassadors Community, a network of nonprofit executives and practitioners, has spent a year developing clear, actionable answers to both questions. You can find them in “The Performance Imperative: A framework for social-sector excellence” (PI). Approximately 70 ambassadors collaborated to develop and endorse the PI and I am proud to be counted among this group.

The PI’s definition of “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 exists to serve. And here, in the PI authors’ view, are the seven organizational disciplines that lead most reliably to high performance:

  1. Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership
  2. Disciplined, people-focused management
  3. Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies
  4. Financial health and sustainability
  5. A culture that values learning
  6. Internal monitoring for continuous improvement
  7. External evaluation for mission effectiveness

The PI fleshes out each one of these disciplines. Organizations can use them as a North Star to guide their journey toward high performance. But how do executives, boards, and funders get there from here?

Six ways to accelerate adoption of the PI

Here are six ideas to get you started—or accelerate—your path to high performance.

  1. Read the PI. The 16-page PI can be downloaded here. You may find additional inspiration from this short introductory video.
  2. Engage in self-assessment and reflection. After reading the PI, share with others in your organization and set aside time to reflect on organizational strengths and weaknesses against each of the seven disciplines. Fellow ambassador Adam Luecking assembled a simple organizational self-assessment tool to help you get started.
  3. Identify three to five action items for your organization. Based on the results of your self-reflection, identify a short list of action items you can accomplish in the short term. For those of you just getting started, start small. For those further along in their journey, you may wish to develop a more robust plan or strategy. Here are some additional resources you might find helpful.
  4. Talk to your funders. Findings from a study just published by the Center for Effective Philanthropy say that many nonprofit leaders want to collect additional—indeed, better—data, but are hamstrung with relatively limited support from foundations to develop this infrastructure. During a recent webinar, Mike Bailin, former president and CEO of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, exhorted foundations to provide more support to grantees (both financial and nonfinancial) and encouraged grantees to be candid with program officers about their needs.
  5. Sign up for upcoming webinars. Consider registering for a second PerformWell webinar “Becoming Evidence-Based: A Step by Step Approach,” focused on disciplines six and seven. You can also listen to the recordings from past webinars: “7 Habits of Highly Effective Organizations” and “Living Up to the Promise of the Social Sector.”
  6. Share your stories and experiences with others. Network with other organizations or communities interested in high performance. Learn from each other, and share tools and strategies for what works. Become inspired by your peers and share with us your stories via info@leapambassadors.org.

If you are interested in joining us to promote the PI, here are some additional tips and resources to help you spread the word.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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