Better Together

Better Together

A Guide to Starting a Regional Approach to Nonprofit Learning and Improvement

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Ever wonder how your region can come together to help its nonprofit leaders and organizations? Looking to ensure continuous improvement and drive greater effectiveness for the people and causes you serve in your community? The Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program may have answers for you.

The Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program, an initiative of The Forbes Funds, engages community nonprofit leaders who are tackling the challenge of organizational performance. In 2018, the one-year pilot program brought together 26 nonprofit leaders and guided them through a structured approach to reflect, discuss, and improve their organizations on their journeys to high performance. As a result of early successes and lessons learned, The Forbes Funds and project funders are repeating the program in 2019.

The goal of the program was to build and share knowledge through open dialogue and deep reflection around issues or problems—with a sharp focus on creating meaningful, measurable results over time. Using a framework for organizational learning and improvement gave leaders a common language that helped move them to their ultimate goal.

The Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program story shares a high-level view of the program and participants’ experiences. As a companion to this document, it offers key insights into creating community-based continuous improvement initiatives.

The Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program Model

The Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program brought together nonprofit leaders, mentors/facilitators, coaches/executives-in-residence, and funders—all eager to strengthen regional nonprofits and leadership. Twenty-six participants met in both large groups for a speaker series and smaller learning circles of approximately eight participants and their mentors/facilitators. The speaker series included topics such as leadership, theory of change, CEO and board partnerships, and organizational culture.

Cohort participants in the learning circles used resources from the Leap Ambassadors Community Continuous Improvement Pathway, including the Performance Practice to dive deeper into the definition and disciplines of high performance from the Performance Imperative and apply it for ongoing reflection, learning, and continuous improvement in their own organizations. As part of the process, participants developed organizational improvement plans to highlight a specific focus area for improvement identified during the Performance Practice review. Cohort members also discussed common challenges and provided support and ideas for potential solutions in their peer-learning circles.

Success Factors

A regional approach to learning and improvement can be innovative, collaborative, and effective. Here are critical elements that Pittsburgh leaders suggest you have in place for success in your region:

  • An Ecosystem With a Commitment to Learning and Improvement — Find local leaders who believe in, value, and support continuous improvement efforts that lead to high performance. These leaders need to have worked collaboratively in the past or have the appetite to do so.
  • Strong Infrastructure — Identify an anchor institution (for example, The Forbes Funds, a national organization with regional chapters or units) with credibility, capacity, and strong relationships with funders and stakeholder nonprofits.
  • Funding Support — Establish a budget (The Forbes Funds found the project expenses of approximately $100K to be low cost and high impact). Identify a lead funder willing to engage other funders to gain buy-in and financial support.
  • A Framework for Organizational Learning and Improvement — Complimentary materials from the Leap Ambassadors Community are a guide for the program and an ongoing resource for individual nonprofits. The Performance Imperative provides a shared definition of high performance and a framework of seven organizational disciplines with underlying principles to explain what it takes to achieve high performance.For each of the Performance Imperative’s principles, the Performance Practice presents one or more specific practices or behaviors that represent manifestations of that principle in action. The Performance Practice gave participants an extensive, in-depth look into their organizations and a broad lens to identify areas for improvement.
  • Experienced, Local Mentors/Facilitators — Involve experienced nonprofit executives with credibility in the community and a personal commitment to continuous improvement toward high performance. Executives should also have good group facilitation skills and the ability to connect and engage leaders. One Pittsburgh learning circle had two strong female mentors, resulting in an unintended positive benefit. For example, the mentors gave insights and sound advice on navigating gender bias in the workplace.Mentors/facilitators should use the Performance Practice in their own organizations before the beginning of the learning circles to guide cohort participants in effectively using the resource for continuous improvement.
  • Aligned Participants — Define your target population (for example, by geography, budget size, or affinity). Nonprofit leaders who have a commitment to continuous improvement will benefit the most. Each organization should send two participants, one of whom should be the CEO or another executive-level decision maker since the process should trigger organizational changes. Two participants from each organization ensures knowledge transfer back to the organization. When non-decision-makers were the only organizational representatives, they weren’t as able to drive organizational changes.

Program Logistics

Based on their pilot experiences, Pittsburgh leaders suggest some important logistical issues to consider.

  • Choose appropriate topics for the learning circles in your region. The pilot cohorts focused on three of the Performance Practice modules: Disciplined, people-focused management; well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies; and financial health and sustainability. NOTE: Almost three-quarters of pilot participants asked to participate in the financial sustainability learning circle. If there is great interest in one area, consider offering more than one learning circle for that module.
  • Define the program schedule. We recommend designing a schedule that includes a half-day orientation session, monthly peer-learning circle sessions, and a final presentation by each learning circle with the full group. You might also consider bringing the full group together to hear speakers discuss topics related to high performance. To maintain momentum, Pittsburgh leaders recommend that these full-group sessions not interrupt the flow of the monthly peer-learning circles.
  • Determine make-up of learning circles. Ideally, learning circles should be no larger than eight participants. The Pittsburgh pilot mixed smaller and larger organizations in learning circles. However, some participants reported that it hampered some conversations and learning. For example, one discussion about personnel problems presented solutions involving HR and legal departments—which smaller organizations don’t have. Other participants noted they found it helpful to hear from organizations with larger budgets and discover different ways to address problems. You may want to be mindful of dimensions like organizational size during the enrollment process to find the best groupings for your project and/or be mindful of the need to address issues from multiple viewpoints.
  • Schedule comprehensive training sessions (View outline, PDF). Provide monitoring guidance and mentor/facilitator reports (view sample report, PDF) and a checklist for mentors/participants (view sample checklist, PDF). Facilitation guides should include clear expectations of the work to be done, a project timeline with deadlines, a checklist, suggestions for data analysis, and materials/outputs needed for each session. If coaches/executives-in-residence are a component of the program (see story here), distinguish between the roles of facilitators/mentors and coaches and how each role supports participants. NOTE: The Leap support team provided resources and support to partner with The Forbes Funds to establish the first regional pilot as a model for other regions. See helpful materials in the Appendix and feel free to contact the support team for general advice and questions.
  • Plan an in-depth orientation session for participants. Plan a half-day orientation session (view sample agenda, PDF) to launch the program. Provide materials, allow for introductions, and set clear expectations for program participation.
  • Implement ongoing performance monitoring and internal evaluation. Monthly reports from the mentors/facilitators should include topics discussed, challenges or obstacles presented, use of coaches (if available), and progress on each organization’s improvement plan. Timely reporting allows for course correction. Use our Monitoring Checklist for Anchor Organizations (PDF file) to make sure you discover problems while there’s still time to course-correct. The midway and final participant evaluations are equally critical for determining project benefits.
  • Plan for assessment of longer-term results. At the outset, participants should agree to provide feedback one year after completing the program to share progress from their organizational improvement plans created during the program. Organizational improvements often take longer to materialize than the length of the program so ongoing communication is key for capturing longer-term results.
  • Structured format. Mentors/facilitators and participants found that more structure within the group yields richer discussions and learning. Homework assignments helped them prepare for the next group session and keep the learning objectives front and center in their everyday work.

Key Program Takeaways from Nonprofit Leaders and Mentors

Participants found these benefits from the peer-learning circles project component:

Connections, support, and learning. Knowing that other leaders have similar problems and challenges helped break down isolation that executives often feel. A foundation of trust in the learning circles allowed them to air hardships and provide validation to each other. Participants indicated they learned a lot from each other and valued the opportunity to talk openly about organizational challenges and problems in a highly confidential space. These connections also present ongoing opportunities for collaboration on common issues.

Mentors and nonprofit leaders offered different experiences, perspectives, and viewpoints on common challenges and possible solutions. For example, participants didn’t expect a discussion on the importance of self-care, how it helps them and their employees, and ways to integrate self-care in their busy lives for their own performance and continuous improvement. The affirmation of a common problem, along with the ideas and suggestions to take care of themselves, helped them to be more aware and set a path forward.

Value of local expertise. Nonprofit leaders found the openness of the mentors, their willingness to share challenges they had faced, and their problem-solving methodologies helpful. Mentors also found participation to be a personal growth experience.

The continuous improvement pathway materials. The Performance Imperative and Performance Practice provided a common definition of high performance and a shared language to discuss organizational improvement. As a valuable resource collaboratively developed by 50+ nonprofit practitioners, researchers, funders, and consultants, the Performance Practice helped leaders focus and learn from staff feedback, while peers and mentors offered valued support and perspective. Participants identified other benefits, including:

  • A shift from reactive to proactive. The process, based on the structured approach provided by the Performance Practice, reinforced the value of assessing critical organizational areas for a better grasp of strengths and improvement topics. Participants were able to move from a reactive to proactive stance in their work.
  • An effective way to engage board and staff. Leaders were better able to understand what was most important to their board and staff. Board and staff got a better grasp of the organization’s overarching work for greater alignment.
  • A vehicle for important discussions. Participants found that the results from the organizational self-assessment were a good way to start necessary (and often difficult) conversations. The ability to cite the data and feedback from staff in response to the proof points was an objective way to begin tough conversations.
  • A way to prioritize. It’s often overwhelming to prioritize improvement areas when there’s so much work to do. Participants indicated that completing the Performance Practice, evaluating the results, and creating themes from the feedback helped them determine where to begin.
  • A focus on getting better at getting better. Participants found the continuous improvement resources were a valuable guide that emphasizes improvement rather than perfection. It helped focus their attention on the most important areas of improvement for their individual organizations at the current time.
  • An avenue for buy-in. Leaders found what they learned through their participation helped get buy-in for necessary changes because 1) it involved input from people throughout the organization, and 2) the improvement plan was based on data from the group and developed during/after a process of joint reflection.
  • A resource for optimism and hope. Staff expressed hope after discussing organizational strengths and weaknesses. The goal of providing high-quality services resonated especially with frontline staff. It seemed to provide greater clarity on where the organizations stood on the path to serve clients better.

Post-Pilot Notable Achievements

Although the pilot ended in December 2018, examples from program participants indicate the beginning of organizational changes and improvements.

One organization realized they had strong logic models for specific programs but lacked an overall organizational theory of change. The board strategic planning committee members and designated staff began the process of creating a draft in preparation for a strategic planning effort.

Another organization needed a more strategic way to assess its programs’ ongoing value in support of mission. As a result of tools shared by a mentor, this organization made changes: Of 11 programs, they decided to increase their investment in four, maintain five, and phase out two. Although profitable, the two programs phased out weren’t core to mission and overlapped with programs at other organizations. Discontinuing two profitable programs was a difficult decision, but leaders knew it was the right thing to do—an equally great example of the Performance Imperative’s Courageous Leadership discipline.

One organization’s completion of the well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies module uncovered a major flaw in its feedback collection process. The staff person who provided services and built relationships with clients also conducted the verbal evaluations. This process raised a number of questions: “How honest were the clients since they were giving feedback to the person providing services? Was there bias in the evaluation write-ups?” They reviewed their data collection practice, other options, and the feasibility of others assisting with client feedback and data collection. As a result, a more objective person who doesn’t provide services now collects client feedback data.

One leader looked at the financial sustainability of each program and the organization as a whole, realized the organization needed to diversify its funding streams, and decided to leverage relationships for corporate funding. The peer-learning circle provided helpful feedback on a corporate sponsorship packet which included a menu of support options. The organization has seen some initial success in corporate sponsorship to help diversify its funding for greater financial sustainability.

Common Challenges, Helpful Solutions

The learning circles provided the opportunity to seek help from each other and offer a range of options for common challenges.

Although learning circles for the disciplines of courageous, executive leadership and a learning culture weren’t used during the program, their importance in organizational improvement regularly surfaced.

Participants said their boards often ask, “How do you compare us to other organizations? How do you benchmark what we’re doing?” The Performance Practice, collaboratively developed by leaders in the field, helped them answer those questions.

Mentors and nonprofit leaders discussed how a healthy culture is key to productivity, staff retention, and quality services. Specific suggestions included:

  • Ensure staff feel they are heard and know that you want their opinions
  • Implement suggestions when you can and explain why if you can’t
  • Let your team know you value and appreciate their hard work and individual talents. Failing to do so contributes to low morale.

Participants recognized that they need to think bigger about the relationship of staffing to the organization’s success. “Are the right people in the right positions and aligned with our mission?”

Retention strategy discussions helped leaders think about a range of possibilities, especially those that aren’t tied to a direct financial cost. Although financial benefits are always desirable, nonprofit leaders can implement a number of low-cost or extremely affordable activities, such as flex time, self-care lunch breaks, time off, mentoring, professional development opportunities, and celebrations.

Nonprofits and funders both desire effective programs (many funders ask for “evidence-based” programs). Leaders determined this is as much a question of mindset as it is about financial resources. We can all start somewhere when it comes to improvements and ask questions such as, “How can we change and improve what we’re doing to strengthen our programs and become more effective for the people we serve?” Empowering staff to look critically at barriers to success for their clients can lead organizations to examine and adopt evidence-based practices.

Nonprofit leaders discussed the challenge of raising funds for current operations and sustainability simultaneously. They learned the importance of proactively assessing their programs for sustainability. A mentor introduced the MacMillan Matrix, a framework that provides a rational approach to determine whether the organization should maintain, grow, seek partners, or divest of their programs. Leaders found this very helpful in assessing their programs holistically, leading them to strengthen their finances and prioritize programs.

Ready to Move Forward?

Each learning circle program will (and should) be different, based on the ecosystem in which you’re operating. But Pittsburgh Learning Circles participants found that change is possible, improvement is continuous, and learning from other executives is invaluable.

If you’re interested in exploring how to implement an initiative like the Pittsburgh Learning Circles Program in your area, please contact Don Goughler (goughler@forbesfunds.org) at The Forbes Funds for information about the program structure, curriculum, and other topics or Linda Johanek (ljohanek@morino.com) at Leap Ambassadors Community for complimentary materials.

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Ready to get serious about taking a regional approach to nonprofit learning and improvement? Download ‘Better Together’ to access helpful documents like participant and mentor checklists, training documents, sample reports and evaluation templates, and more.

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Ever wonder how your region can come together to help its nonprofit leaders and organizations? The #PittsburghLearningCircles program has some ideas. Via @ LeapAmbassadors: http://bit.ly/2MGfZUU Click To Tweet'Better Together' from @ LeapAmbassadors provides a guide to starting a regional approach to learning and improvement based on the #PittsburghLearningCircles model: http://bit.ly/2KXi1Oh Click To TweetA regional approach to learning and improvement can be innovative, collaborative, and effective. But there are some key factors for success, as #PittsburghLearningCircles participants learned: http://bit.ly/2U3r2Is Click To Tweet

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Curious about what a regional approach to learning and improvement might look like? Leap Ambassadors’ recent story https://t.co/i5W9HqhB37 shared the experience of a cohort of Pittsburgh nonprofit leaders, and now there’s guide to help other leaders who want to explore a similar approach in their area! Each regional learning circle program will (and should) be different, because each region is different. But it’s encouraging that the Pittsburgh Learning Circles participants found that change is possible – and that learning from other leaders is invaluable! Learn about some of the common challenges, helpful solutions, program logistics, key takeaways, success factors, and more in ‘Better Together: A Guide to Starting a Regional Approach to Nonprofit Learning and Improvement.’ http://bit.ly/2ZvgebaClick to Share on Facebook


The Pittsburgh Learning Circles, an initiative of the Forbes Funds, engages nonprofit leaders in the greater Pittsburgh region to tackle the challenge of organizational performance in bold new ways. Learn more about the program’s goals, and hear from participant’s in the first-year pilot program by reading our story!

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