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Recently, I attended the evening awards ceremony that unveiled the 2011 list of 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon.  Ichose to attend the event to acknowledge the organizational excellence of the many nonprofits serving Oregon communities that made the list.  The evening reception and dinner gave me an opportunity to congratulate friends I have known for years and to make the acquaintance of numerous other nonprofit professionals, board members, and volunteers.  The evening also gave me a chance to reflect on the culture of organizational excellence.

As with many ranking systems, the 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon is a survey-based process. It combines the rankings of self-reported, staff survey responses and an employer benefits survey.  The scores of the organizations are then parsed into categories or small, medium, and large nonprofit agencies.  According to the Oregon Business Magazine, 170 nonprofits participated in the survey with over 5,500 individual employee surveys received from participating agencies.

Underneath the “contest element” of the 100 Best ranking, is a very important organizational management tool. From the perspective of those I spoke with at the recognition event, the ranking of “100 Best” was, indeed, the expression of an organizational culture of continuous improvement rather than a “bragging rights” contest.

Perhaps this thinking was best captured in a conversation I had with an Executive Director of an organization that has been on the list for three years.  Clearly animated she said, “The survey has each of my employees giving us feedback on our work environment, our management, and communications, along with their opinions about how well we are doing on mission, goals, career development, and compensation. The information is way more valuable to me and my board than the award” (A bit later in the conversation she did concede that the award was also important in fundraising, marketing and her agency was glad to have received it).

As I pondered the “best of event” my mind began to wander into thinking about continuous improvement as an organizational mindset.  As my consulting practice is based on nonprofit performance improvement, my first stop down the road of thinking was to do a quick math calculation.  There are almost 16,000 public charities registered in Oregon (source) and yet only 170 agencies participated in “100 Best” survey process.  That means only 1% of the nonprofit organizations in Oregon were considered for the designation of “100 Best.”  I am not suggesting that only 1% of nonprofits are interested in being named among the “best” but the statistic does beg the question, “how many nonprofits intentionally strive to be among the best?”  In this post, I want to reflect on the role of a “best thinking mindset” for nonprofits and offer some practical strategies for getting started on a continuous improvement process.

Engage Everybody: One of the first principles of continuous improvement is that it is not a “solo practice” or even a top down “management event.”  Continuous improvement is foremost a shared culture and only secondarily is continuous improvement a practice. Here is a simple diagnostic. Stop and think about how often in a board or staff meeting did you hear the question, “What can we do to improve…?”  How many different people ask the question?  Does the question relate to your agency’s programs, operations, evaluation –or all the above?  If your self-reflection suggests that continuous improvement is not as active as a value as you would like in your organization, then start a conversation about the critical need for continuous improvement in the nonprofit sector today.  A few reasons for continuous improvement include: a) growing demands for services require high quality services delivered effectively, b) funders are increasingly demanding continuous improvement, c) high performing organizations are more stable and thriving work environments. (here is an interesting masters thesis on the topic)

Self Assess: Once you have a critical mass of interest in continuous improvement then it makes sense to identify the opportunities for improvement. One way to assess your opportunities is to facilitate a conversation using an appreciative inquire approach that identifies your Strengths, Aspirations, Opportunities and Results (see here & here).  This can be either preceded or followed by a more detailed assessment using more formal assessment tools (great online tool database here).  With an assessment complete, prioritizing your needs is an exercise of determining which of the needs map with your organizational aspirations and hold the greatest potential of a positive return on the invested time and energy required to make the improvement

Develop a Focus: At this stage of the process, it is important to develop a way to focus the energy and attention of the entire organization.  Focusing organization attention can be accomplished using tools such as a written workplan (see here & here) or a visual organizer (see here).  Further, developing a focus includes creating a tracking process to ensure process is being made on performance improvement plans developed.

Rapid Cycle Test: Performance improvement is operationalized with the use of an iterative process to create, measure and monitor changes over time.  One such process is to frame change as a “rapid cycle test” that is a four step cycle of Plan, Do, Study Act (here is a great primer).  In short, this process suggests change is: a) planned, b) implemented as a pilot (do), c) followed by a study of the results, and d) the results acted on (either further implementation of the change or revision of the change in another cycle of piloting).

As this performance improvement cycle becomes an embedded cultural practice, your organization will become stronger. Indeed, operationalizing a performance improvement culture is clearly the mark of a “best of” organization.  I would like to reiterate,  performance improvement is a critical nonprofit management competency to master and increasingly is not optional. The rapidly changing times demand that nonprofit organizations focus myopically on developing the highest level of organizational functioning and still reach higher. Borrowing from the iconic Harry Potter books, getting to where you want to be requires, a clear destination, determination to get there, and deliberate effort.  Performance improvement requires no less.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.

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