The Performance Imperative

The Performance Imperative

A framework for social sector excellence

The Performance Imperative helps nonprofits and public agencies understand and assess performance by sharing a common definition of high performance and providing a framework of seven organizational disciplines to achieve it.


Our Common Definition of ‘High Performance’

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 is in existence to serve.

Where is your organization on its continuous improvement journey?
Download Discussion Questions (PDF)


The Seven Pillars of High Performance

Organizations that commit to pursuing high performance generally make the most progress by cultivating seven core disciplines:

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

Note: We recognize that even the most exemplary high-performance organizations do not excel in all seven pillars equally or simultaneously.

Watch this introductory video with your board, staff, and other stakeholders to jumpstart your journey to high performance


Pillar 1

Courageous, Adaptive Executive And Board Leadership

In high-performance organizations:

  • Executives and boards embrace their responsibility to deliver meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results.
  • Executives and boards clarify the mission of their organization and passionately push to keep getting better at pursuing it.
  • Executives and boards clearly define their respective roles and expectations. They hold each other accountable for delivering on their commitments.
  • Boards are strong, assertive governors and stewards, not just supporters and fundraisers. They recruit, advise, and hold accountable the lead executive (CEO). They ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.
  • Executives and boards listen and respond to the needs of the people they serve (i.e., their primary constituents). This means systematically collecting, synthesizing, and using constituent feedback to inform decision-making.
  • During the ongoing and iterative process of assessing effectiveness, executives and boards constantly ask: What do our constituents need to make their lives better? Is our program helping them get it? If not, what should we do differently?
  • Executives and boards constantly assess not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing.
  • Executives and boards are humble enough to seek and act on feedback on their own performance and that of their organization. Even the highest performers acknowledge that they still have a lot to learn.
  • Executives and boards recruit, develop, engage, and retain the talent necessary to deliver on their mission. They know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.
  • Executives and boards marshal the external partners and resources necessary to deliver on their mission.
  • Executives and boards cultivate trust-based relationships with key policymakers. They keep policymakers informed about their work; advocate for policies and funding that can benefit constituents; and advocate against proposals that could adversely affect constituents.
  • Executives and boards engage in succession planning for CEO, board chair, and other senior leadership roles. They place leaders in roles to challenge and prepare them for greater responsibility.
  • Executives and boards cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level of the organization, because a wide array of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives contribute to an organization’s creativity, empathy, and effectiveness.
  • Executives and boards treat internal and external communications as a strategic function that is essential for delivering great results and not just good PR.
Return to Top

Download the leadership principles to print and/or share them with others

Find out how courageous and adaptive your board and executive leadership is—and embark on a learning journey to make it even stronger

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 2

Disciplined, People-Focused Management

In high-performance organizations:

  • Managers translate leaders’ drive for excellence into clear work plans and incentives to carry out the work effectively and efficiently.
  • Managers’ decisions are data informed whenever possible.
  • Managers, like executives and boards, recruit, develop, engage, and retain the talent necessary to deliver on the mission. They help staff get the tools and training they need in order to deliver the desired results.
  • Managers provide opportunities for staff members to see how their work contributes to the organization’s mission. Managers know that doing so helps staff members find meaning and purpose in their work—and generally leads to higher motivation and performance.
  • Managers establish accountability systems that provide clarity at each level of the organization about the standards for success and yet provide room for staff to be creative about how they achieve these standards.
  • Managers provide continuous, candid, constructive feedback to team members and augment it with periodic performance reviews. They view performance reviews as an opportunity to help staff improve.
  • Managers provide frequent opportunities for staff to provide feedback to their supervisors. Supervisors are not only open to receiving this feedback; they encourage it and are willing to act on it.
  • Managers acknowledge and take action when staff members are not doing their work well. They give these staffers help to improve or move them to more suitable roles. If it becomes clear that staff members are unable or unwilling to meet expectations, managers are not afraid to make tough personnel decisions so that the organization can live up to the promises it makes to constituents, donors, and other key stakeholders.

Note: We recognize that an organization with a very small staff usually can’t afford to draw a distinction between leaders and managers. In our experience, this distinction starts to be meaningful as an organization grows in size and/or adds sites—making planning, organizing, and coordinating more important and more challenging to do.

Return to Top

Download the management principles to print and/or share them with others

Reflect on how disciplined and people-focused your management is—and join forces to make it even better

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 3

Well-Designed And Well-Implemented Programs And Strategies

In high-performance organizations:

  • Leaders and managers who run programs that are intended to produce meaningful life changes hold themselves accountable for helping participants achieve desired outcomes. Programs intended to provide important but not life-changing products or services, such as food for homeless families, are not accountable for outcomes but must deliver high-quality outputs.
  • Leaders, managers, and staff treat constituents with respect, authenticity, and empathy.
  • Leaders and managers select or design their programs and strategies based on a sound analysis of the issues and evidence-informed assumptions about how the organization’s activities can lead to the desired change (often referred to as a “theory of change”).
  • Once programs and strategies are up and running, leaders and managers continually ask: Are we collecting the information we need to ensure we’re effectively meeting the needs of our participants? Are we reviewing and acting upon the latest evidence in our field? Are we open to counter-evidence that suggests we should be doing things differently?
  • Leaders and managers implement their programs in a high-quality manner using rigorous implementation standards.
  • Leaders and managers are sensitive to the cultural, racial, and political dynamics in the communities they serve and are open to making adjustments to their programs and strategies when these dynamics shift.
  • Leaders and managers establish and rigorously apply clear criteria for who is in their target population.
  • Leaders and managers do a good job of recruiting, retaining, motivating, listening to, and learning from their program participants.
  • In the case of direct-service organizations, all management and staff seek to build strong relationships with those they serve. This relationship is often the single biggest determinant of whether participants will stay engaged in programming and thereby achieve the desired results.
  • Leaders and managers guard against the temptation to veer off course in search of numbers that look good in marketing materials or reports to funders.
Return to Top

Download the programs principles to print and/or share them with others

Examine how well-designed and well-implemented your programs and strategies are—and get together to improve them even more

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 4

Financial Health And Sustainability

In high-performance organizations:

  • The board and senior management take charge of their organization’s financial destiny. They articulate the value they deliver and develop overall strategies, tightly aligned with their mission, to support and sustain the organization.
  • The board and senior management nurture the external financing relationships required to support their organization’s operations.
  • The board and senior management establish strong systems for financial stewardship and accountability throughout their organization.
  • The board, management, and staff build and participate in budget processes that are oriented toward achieving results and not just conducting activities. This means allocating adequate resources for monitoring and evaluation. And it means making hard choices, especially in tough financial times, to direct money where it needs to go to drive the intended results.
  • Senior management uses financial modeling to make clear and transparent the organization’s financial condition and, at any given point, predict how it will end the year (and what will make the prediction more or less reliable).
  • The board and senior management share financial results transparently with key stakeholders at regular intervals.
  • The board and senior management treat fundraising/fund development as a strategic function that requires focus, management, capital, and specialized skill sets. They craft clearly defined roles and goals for the board and staff.
  • The board and senior management operate their organization at a surplus that allows them to build a strong balance sheet with appropriate reserves.
  • The board, management, and key staff understand their organization’s cost structure, which aspects of it are required to produce high-quality programs and/or services, and how it aligns with reliable revenue sources for funding it year in and year out. They are relentless in making necessary investments with an eye to costs and benefits while being equally relentless in reducing unnecessary costs.
  • Senior management instills an organization-wide discipline of compliance with all regulatory requirements.
Return to Top

Download the finance principles to print and/or share them with others

Discuss how healthy and sustainable your organization’s finances are—and get on a path to long-term financial health

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 5

A Culture That Values Learning

In high-performance organizations:

  • The board, management, and staff understand the organization’s mission and desired results and review them periodically to ensure that they are still relevant.
  • The board, management, and staff continually seek to do even better for the people or causes they serve.
  • The board, management, and staff are open and transparent about their results—whether the results are positive or negative—to fuel learning and improvement.
  • People in all parts of the organization have high expectations of themselves and of their peers.
  • The board, management, and staff take on the challenge of collecting and using information, not because it’s a good marketing tool, and not because a funder said they have to. They believe it is integral to ensuring material, measurable, and sustainable good for the people or causes they serve.
  • The board, management, and staff recognize they can’t fully understand the needs of those they serve unless they listen to and learn from constituents in formal and informal ways.
  • The board, management, and staff take the time to benchmark themselves against, and learn from, peer organizations that are at the top of their field.
  • Senior management leads by example and encourages people throughout the organization to be curious, ask questions, and push each other’s thinking by being appropriately and respectfully challenging. High-performance cultures are innovative cultures, mindful that every program and process eventually becomes dated, even obsolete.
  • Senior management creates an environment in which staff members feel safe acknowledging when there are problems. They use what others might deem “failures” as an opportunity to listen, learn, and improve.
  • Even the busiest leaders, managers, and staff members carve out formal and informal opportunities to step back, take stock, and reflect.
Return to Top

Download the culture principles to print and/or share them with others

Think through how free you are to fail, learn, and get better—and double down on developing a culture that values learning

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 6

Internal Monitoring For Continuous Improvement

In high-performance organizations:

  • The board, management, and staff work together to establish quantitative and qualitative indicators tightly aligned with the results they want to achieve, for each program and for the organization as a whole.
  • Management and staff produce frequent reports on how well the organization is implementing its programs and strategies. Management and staff use these reports to chart course corrections and make operational adjustments and programmatic improvements on an ongoing basis.
  • Management and staff make the collection, analysis, and use of data part of the organization’s culture and daily operations. They ensure that people throughout the organization understand the key metrics. And they invest in training and coaching to help staff gain comfort in working with data as a natural part of the job.
  • Management and staff deploy systems to collect and analyze constituent feedback, drawing on existing tools whenever possible. The best systems not only help staff understand constituents’ views; they also help ensure that constituents play a role in creating needed improvements.
  • Management and staff prioritize collecting information that’s relevant for determining how well they are achieving the desired results, understanding what mix of efforts is critical to achieving those results, and continuously improving their results over time.
  • The board, management, and staff draw extensively on lessons from organizational assessments and evaluations of programs serving similar causes or populations.
  • Management and staff of direct-service organizations put special emphasis on data about recruitment and engagement of their target population, so they can find out if they’re reaching the people they aspire to serve and engaging them in activities long enough to make a difference.
Return to Top

Download the monitoring principles to print and/or share them with others

Consider how well internal data help you make decisions—and ensure that monitoring truly supports continuous improvement

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.

Pillar 7

External Evaluation For Mission Effectiveness

In high-performance organizations:

  • Leaders complement internal monitoring with external evaluations conducted by highly skilled, independent experts.
  • Leaders commission external assessments to learn more about how well their programs are being run, what these programs are or are not accomplishing, who is or is not benefiting, and how the programs can be strengthened. Leaders do not use external assessments as a one-time, up-or-down verdict on the organization’s effectiveness.
  • Leaders recognize that there are many different types of external assessments, and no one type is right for every organization or for every stage of an organization’s development. Independent evaluators who understand how different methodologies fit different contexts can help leaders match the tool to the task.
  • Leaders draw a clear distinction between outputs (e.g., meals delivered, youth tutored) and outcomes (meaningful changes in knowledge, skills, behavior, or status). Those who are working to improve outcomes commission evaluations to assess whether they are having a positive net impact. In other words, they want to know to what extent, and for whom, they’re making a meaningful difference beyond what would have happened anyway.
  • Leaders who plan to expand significantly any programs aimed at improving outcomes have a special obligation to commission a rigorous evaluation that can assess net impact.
  • Even those leaders who commission the most rigorous of impact evaluations do not stop there. They commission additional assessments to gauge their impact in new settings (or for new populations) and achieve greater positive impact for the money they spend.
  • Leaders share the methodology and results of their external assessments to help others learn and avoid mistakes.

Note: We crafted this pillar with a special focus on organizations that provide services, but we believe the core concepts are relevant for other types of nonprofits as well—from those that advance human rights to those that protect ecosystems.

Return to Top

Review past evaluations and future plans—and prepare for external evaluations that will help you ensure mission effectiveness

A starter list of bite-sized videos and articles to help you improve when you need to understand a problem or better define your approach.


Use our slides to show your stakeholders how the Performance Imperative and the Performance Practice can help your organization on its continuous improvement journey.


Share this two-page primer containing key facts and FAQs to give stakeholders an overview of the Performance Imperative and the Performance Practice.

Want to see the entire Performance Imperative, including background about who developed it and how? Download the full document here.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!