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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How should nonprofits develop a high-performance culture?


Marcia Mintz, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix (BGCMP), defined a high-performance culture as, “When everybody at every level understands where their role fits into the organization and the plan to get where they want to go.” 

When Mintz took over as CEO, to implement a high-performance culture she followed several key processes: establishing clarity, an organizational plan and a more fluid hierarchy that allows for employee development. In doing so, problems that cause a lack of high-performance culture, like turnover and rigidity, crumble and dissipate. Nonprofit organizations are mission-driven businesses in an industry of service. Establishing a culture of high-performing people increases the functionality and efficiency of an organization toward its goals, and its goals are its reason for existence. The culture sustains itself by setting a precedent for recruiting the right type of people and developing them to fit into an organization.

Clear values and goals

Leadership is crucial to developing and sustaining a high-performance culture because it establishes organizational culture from the inside out. A leader’s values set the direction of the organization, which new employees inherit. All levels of the organization need to intentionally meet regularly to go over and align their reason for existing, their goals and the behaviors they value. When an organization is clear about its goals and the processes to get there, employees become independent leaders no matter their position. Once goals and processes are clearly defined, employees need less involvement from management. They become more autonomous, more confident and perform better at their jobs.  

Diversity and engagement

To be high performing, teamwork should allow for engagement, interest and creativity. The people on the bus should be from various backgrounds and working styles. Different people provide different solutions to unique problems. Without a diverse group of people, the solutions tend to be redundant, and redundant solutions lack innovation. Engaged employees bounce ideas around, suggest new ideas, challenge the norms and innovate. Meetings that are complacent and lack engagement, paired with bored employees, do not result in a high-performing outcome.

Employee development

Sally Coleman Selden and Jessica Sowa hypothesized that nonprofit turnover rates were due to a recruitment issue and that human resources needed to hire employees with an existing skill set. Instead, their study revealed that employees were far more likely to stay with a nonprofit organization if they saw an opportunity for their professional development within that organization. They also found that nonprofits tend to naturally recruit employees that have a desire to develop themselves professionally. Many potential employees turn to nonprofits for their professional growth.  

Nonprofits may not need to spend so much energy on recruiting people with certain capabilities, but they do need to spend energy on developing those people and fitting them into the organization’s established goals where they can be the most effective. Leaders must take the time to learn and know their employees as individuals. Successful leaders looking to develop a high-performance culture must take the time to know their people. Once a leader is aware of strengths and weaknesses of a team, they know where to help them grow. Growth opportunities decrease turnover in nonprofits, and decreased turnover results in a high-performing culture within the organization.

Loosen the hierarchy

Nonprofit organizations must change their hierarchical systems to become more fluid. It is a process of establishing a system where employees have the opportunity to learn beyond what their current position entails. Frances Hesselbein’s hierarchical recommendation is that it should no longer resemble a traditional pyramid with the leadership on top looking downward. Instead, she places the leader at the center, with everyone around the leader connected by circles. She chooses circles because circles are fluid, and the leader can look across to all people and all tasks necessary to the organization. Circles make it possible to look to the side, center and all around.  All job tasks are necessary, and each circle is valuable.

Karen Kormendy is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She currently works as a Unit Director for The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix, an organization whose primary focus is to empower at-risk youth during their out-of-school-time to become the best adults they can be. She has worked for the organization in a variety of capacities for seven years. She currently runs the Louis & Elizabeth Sands Branch and serves youth and teens in the city of Glendale, Arizona.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog