3 min read

Job Performance: How is your nonprofit team really doing? And how do you know?

This one's for you nonprofit managers and directors out there. Maybe you've been here: your team is feeling stressed and overworked. (Sound familiar?) You're concerned about them, and you're worried about the way their performance at work is affected, but you don't know quite what needs to change. Maybe you even have a Board member asking how you know you have the right people on your team or whether the stress is attributable to one employee's poor job performance. If you're like me, maybe that question makes you feel a little defensive. Maybe you're worried that assessing job performance based on measurable numbers is too simplistic. Maybe you're worried that an employee will feel threatened by having their job success tied to numbers.

What I've learned in my years running impact-driven teams: those concerns are totally normal, but they're giving you bad information. In the rest of this post, I will share some of the secrets I learned about employee engagement, satisfaction, and security by working through these very questions.

How dare you imply that I don’t know how my team is doing?

This was the overwhelming feeling I had the first time a leader asked me if I had the wrong people on my team. I thought they were attacking my integrity as a manager - I knew good job performance (and poor performance) when I saw it, so why didn't they trust me to do my job?

The secret is: they weren't challenging my integrity by asking the question. They just didn't know the answer. And I was in the best position to help them understand. But saying "I just know" wasn't going to give them the confidence they needed. I needed to give them evidence that my team could meet an important goal, develop an important skill, or rise to the challenge that they're tasked with. In short: I needed to clearly define what it meant to be a successful member of my team.

Numbers on a dashboard feels too simplistic. How do I reflect the job my team is really doing?

Indeed, a dashboard can't tell you everything. (Though it can tell you a lot!) The good news is, if you're asking this question, you're already well on your way to measuring success in a meaningful way.

That's because you're already thinking about what the job your team is doing really is. And that's the key to doing this well.

Start by defining the big-picture outcomes that your team needs to produce - even by writing down your organization's mission as a whole. Narrow down from there: What does your team need to accomplish to advance the organization's mission?

Then get even more specific: Imagine you're reporting on your team's goals to a funder. (Big stretch, I know.) How will they know when you've met your goals? What milestones tell you that you're making progress? Are you collecting the data you need to know when you've reached those milestones?

Once you've identified what your team needs to do, you can start to get specific about what you need from each employee. This will include things like the job duties they're expected to perform and the outcomes they're responsible for. It can and should also include anything important to you about how they do that job. That might not be something you can track with a number on a dashboard; you can describe behavior and classify whether an employee meets it "always/usually/sometimes/never" - but it should be something you can put evidence behind.

For example, if diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to you, success on your team might include an expected behavior like this one: "Employee X treats our constituents with respect whether they're in the room or not." Suppose you would rate them with "Sometimes" or "Never," you'd better (a) have evidence that they treated constituents disrespectfully and (b) be prepared to explain to Employee X that they need to change this behavior.

How can I help an employee feel safe if I measure their performance?

The big surprise for many nonprofit managers is that as long as you measure the right things, this can actually make an employee feel safer. That's because a surprising amount of job stress comes from uncertainty around whether you're meeting expectations. In fact, I saw job satisfaction increase dramatically on my team once I could give them a goal to shoot for and achieve.

This is especially important for employees from underrepresented or minoritized backgrounds, who are far too often criticized for not having the right "culture fit" or similar vague critiques that can't be acted on and are often rooted in unconscious bias. When it comes time for a performance review, pointing to a clear expectation that was met or exceeded allows the employee to show that they're bringing value to the team, even if they have a background or personality type that doesn't match their manager's.

Okay, so it's important, but this all sounds like a lot. Where can I go to get help with this?

One of my favorite resources for impact-focused managers looking to develop these skills is The Management Center, which has many helpful tools, training and coaching options, and advice for defining roles and working through performance problems. And I'd be kicking myself if I missed the chance to share my personal blog about equitable, effective management.

And if this resonates with you, we're also here to help - reach out and let us know that you're interested in management advising!