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From Private to Nonprofit | Inside the Culture Shift, Part 1

A group of people working in an office. One of them is standing by a board.

Plenty of people these days are making the move from the private to the nonprofit sector in order to use their powers for good. But what happens when someone goes for the sector-switch and lands in unfamiliar territory?

The for-profit and nonprofit worlds have some noteworthy distinctions—and some surprising similarities—that make this change both compelling and a bit bumpy, especially for mid- or late-career professionals.

This article is the first in a series offering a few tips to help you manage the transition. First up is a look at how performance management often works in the nonprofit sector.

What is the difference, exactly?

Coming from the business world, you may be accustomed to clear, standardized performance reviews with measurable indicators. Take private consulting as an example: raises and performance reviews are at least partly tied to the percentage of your billable hours covered by projects. A higher percentage generally indicates your talents are in demand, offering a numerical indicator of your performance.

At your new nonprofit, performance management may be quite different from your prior experience.

Not all nonprofits have systematized performance reviews for employees—or for the organization more broadly. And when there are performance metrics, they can at times, be a bit fuzzy. This makes sense; in mission-driven environments, it’s not always so easy to define how you can successfully contribute to the mission.

There are, however, some ways you can bring transparent and effective performance measurement to your new nonprofit position. Try applying these tips as part of the transition:

1. Develop your own key performance indicators (KPIs) tied to a strategic framework

Nonprofit strategic plans can be useful frameworks for setting personal KPIs. You can pull from the mission, theory of change, goals, objectives, and implementation strategies to set your own KPIs, which will help you define priorities.

If your organization has yet to develop a strategic plan, there are still ways to map out a rough performance framework for yourself:

  • Break down the mission statement by defining key words and phrases in more tangible, concrete terms. Looking for an example? The Global Covenant of Mayors does this effectively in their online mission statement.
  • Dabble in a bit of strategic planning, working with your team or veteran colleagues to do a quick assessment of impact, activity, and capacity measures linked to the mission.
  • Conduct short interviews with colleagues or beneficiaries to gauge how they see your role contributing to the organization.

2. Proactively report on your strategy and performance

In the absence of systematic employee performance reviews, you can still develop an action plan for delivering on performance goals for your role and periodically present progress to supervisors and colleagues.

The format and frequency can vary. To start, aim for quarterly verbal presentations to highlight actions you took as well as key outcomes. If your role is new to the organization or program area, supplement presentations with monthly bullet point summaries over email. This will help your colleagues quickly catch on to your approach and contribution.

In this process, it also helps to:

  • Frame each update as a review of your program area and function as it relates to the mission—not just for you as an individual.
  • Map how your actions support other staff and teams. This gesture is likely to go a long way with your colleagues.
  • Think through how the organization can best support your part of the mission, identifying potential obstacles and ways to overcome them independently or with organizational support.

3. Document your performance

Just like the for-profit world, when it comes time to renew a contract or to ask for a pay raise or promotion, it helps to have documentation to fall back on. Don’t hesitate to create informal documentation systems for yourself. Here are some things to try out:

  • Work with your supervisors to prepare a job description that accurately reflects your performance goals. Relying on the original job posting is unlikely to truly capture your function and personal action plan.
  • Ask colleagues for peer reviews. This can be as simple and short as a 100-word paragraph.
  • Use output as a proxy for performance, and track your work by keeping a record of what you produce and concrete actions you take on a daily basis. There are some useful tools, like Toggl, that actually let you set a timer when recording your daily activities.

Never make assumptions

There are, of course, plenty of nonprofit organizations that have robust performance management systems in place, or that have found ways to be creative and systematic even while operating with limited resources.

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by Jen Bogle

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