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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How Can Nonprofits Build High-Performing Teams?

Unlike for-profits, nonprofits must do more with less. With limited people and financial resources, leaders of nonprofit organizations must execute strong management styles that develop the talent of their teams, foster healthy working environments and encourage retention of valuable employees. While the definition of a high-performing team varies based on outcomes desired, subsector and performance metrics, they typically embody five key characteristics: “a shared, meaningful, and clearly understood purpose or vision, requisite talent to be successful in accomplishing the purpose, interdependent team members, accountability and support among team members and a high level of mutual trust among all team members.” 

There are no shortcuts to cultivating such teams, but best practices involve hiring with intention, motivating performance and retaining top talent. In an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Monisha Kapila says, “The nonprofit sector is known for underinvesting in talent. From low compensation to lack of training, the pursuit of minimal overhead has resulted in anemic spending on human capital.”

Budgetary constraints shaped by charity watchdog organizations also impose limits that encourage decreasing administrative costs in order to increase program costs, which may impact nonprofits from devoting funds to human resources management. However, limited and dated understandings of financial decisions can have disastrous effects on a nonprofit’s mission and impact. Leaders must understand that they cannot afford not to invest in talent development. 

In order to counter the pending “leadership deficit,” organizations must take a new approach to building HPT’s, which involves approaching human resources strategically, creating a development plan, building a supportive culture and measuring performance.

Approach Human Resources Strategically

Whether hiring a professional HR manager, outsourcing HR functions or recruiting an experienced board member, nonprofits need to cultivate a strategy to recruit, train and retain top talent. Up to 77 percent of candidates find the interview experience a major factor in moving forward with an organization. Lack of professionalism and high turnover rates can dissuade high-performers from joining the team. A strategic HR approach also involves forecasting future needs and hiring to meet those growth goals.  

Create a Development Plan 

In an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Libbie Landles-Cobb, Kirk Kramer and Katie Smith Milway suggest four steps to creating a staff development plan: identify managers committed to being talent champions and willing to mentor other employees, decide what development opportunities align both with the organization’s goals and the individual’s needs, co-create development plans with staff including what their goals are and what supplemental training will be most valuable and create a follow-up plan for how to root performance review in development strategies. The Center for Creative Leadership suggests leaders adopt a 70/20/10 Model for learning and development “which asserts that adults learn approximately 70 percent through on-the-job stretch opportunities, 20 percent through coaching and mentoring, and 10 percent through training programs to grow discreet skills.” 

Build a Supportive Structure

Without the right people on the bus, the team cannot be high performing. However, even the most motivated and qualified employees will burnout if not given the environment to thrive. Building a supportive structure involves cultivating trust, developing communication standards, establishing effective daily routines, overcoming traditional views of management and empowering high-performing employees to achieve success. The HPT emits a culture of passion, innovation, drive and collaboration. 

Measure Performance

Central to the HPT is defining and tracking performance, although this does not need to be intricate or time-consuming. A leadership team must strategically decide what “high-performance” means for the organization, what metrics are tied to such performance, what system of measurement or evaluation will be most effective and encouraging to the organization’s stakeholders and how to utilize the data to inform decisions, recognize accomplishments and make performance adjustments as needed. 

Investing in the development of high-performing teams is of critical importance. Ultimately, the stronger the team, the greater the social impact for communities and societies both locally and globally.

Shannon Harrell is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Harrell is a Colorado-raised thought leader with experience developing talent in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. She serves as a Project Manager for Young Life and Board of Directors member for Kingdom Builders’ Family Life Center in Colorado Springs. 


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