Leading with Every Action: Evaluating Performance, Learning from Mistakes, and Succession Planning for Your Nonprofit

February 22, 2022 | Craig Grella
Leading with EveryAction - Succession Planning

This post is a continuation of our Leading with Every Action series where we bring together industry experts in the nonprofit space to discuss important topics of the day and provide advice for all nonprofit leaders. In addition, this article reviews a two-part video series, cohosted by Shannon McCracken with The Nonprofit Alliance, where operational executives and nonprofit leadership experts joined us to discuss constructive approaches to evaluating performance, celebrating big and little wins, learning from mistakes, and being purposeful when responding to employee needs. 

Nonprofit strategic planning and performance measurement 

The bulk of nonprofit planning usually focuses on strategy and the metrics which define success. But our first Leading with Every Action guest commenter, Lance Slaughter from The ALS Association, looks at strategy and performance through a different lens. It’s all about measuring the impact of their work and its effect on the people they serve. This is an intentional move, and it can be a complete shift in culture for an organization, but an important one to make.  

When looking at their strategic plan, ALS wanted to make it impact-oriented, so that anyone who viewed it could see their own place within it. So, whether they were a board member, part of the senior management team, a person in finance, or even a volunteer—anyone looking at their strategic plan could see how their direct work and responsibilities supported the overall goals, priorities, and outcomes in that plan and for the organization as a whole. 

Put your focus on impact, rather than just numbers on a spreadsheet

“Our goals shifted to being impact-oriented where priorities had to describe the impact, and their programs, activities, and projects were all tied to those priorities and their impact.” 

Of course, each organization’s impact will be unique, and thus their goals and activities will be unique. In the case of ALS, their priorities were all tied to allowing people with ALS to live longer, live better, or focus on preventing people from getting ALS at all. Their programs, activities, and projects were all created to further that mission. Performance was then based on individual KPIs and the overall impact on the group of people they serve. 

When you develop goals, giving employees the ability to see them physically and understand their part in accomplishing them can bring meaning to everyday work. An effective way to do this is to post goals in shared spaces like workrooms, kitchens, conference rooms, or even on the walls of the company halls. 

Boosting morale at your nonprofit 

The great resignation has taught us that people spend more time reflecting on what’s important in their lives. They want to know the time they spend at the office is important and that it contributes to the organization’s mission and furthers their values. 

Leigh Janis from Production Solutions, our second Leading with Every Action guest commenter, views this through a similar lens where performance measurement becomes qualitative and is more than just key performance indicators. For her, it’s about putting the focus back on people, both internally and externally. By recognizing what they can and can’t control, they can reinforce relationships with quality work and effective communication. Sure, they care about KPIs at the individual level, but they also spend time discussing and validating how their partners are feeling. That subtle shift in focusing on the people works to increase morale among employees and partners, and better equips you to handle challenges together. 

A tactic Leigh uses to help employees think about their whole self is to use a modified version of a concept like the Wheel of Life (which we introduced in our previous leadership post), where each person sets a word of the year, and then creates goals in four (4) domains: Work, Family, Self, Community. Staff are then encouraged to progress on those domains, not just work! 

Celebrating your wins and your people 

Celebrating your wins is another vital tactic to boost employee morale. Sometimes when you’re focused on that long-term goal, you can lose sight of what you’ve accomplished along the way. That’s why Leigh recommends spending a few minutes each Friday reflecting on all you’ve done earlier in the week. This simple task can remind you what’s important and give you the positive energy you need to keep up the excellent work! 

It’s also important that you celebrate your people every chance you get. Create events that foster genuine connections between employees at every level and encourage further engagement all year long. Call that finance manager and thank them for that thing they did. Send a handwritten letter to your colleague when they help you with a challenging task. Those little things go a long way to boost morale and provide a personal touch. And remember, there’s no such thing as “one size that fits all.” Spending time with your colleagues is the only way to learn what they are interested in and what makes them unique.

Creating a culture of learning from your mistakes 

We’re all human—mistakes are going to happen. But, as Lance Slaughter puts it, the key is to be accountable and transparent. Own up to your mistakes quickly and understand whether the error supported an overall objective or related to something outside the mission. The former can be a great learning opportunity, while the latter indicates that more training is needed to help the employee focus on what matters. 

The goal for every organization should be to create a culture of accountability where all the work you do is in support of your objective or mission and where your successes and failures are public for all stakeholders to see. That way, you can learn from your mistakes, and others can build on them. This is especially true with nonprofits in the science community, where the successes they see today are based on multiple failures from previous years. Lance saw this firsthand with clinical trials considered a failure for one disease, but because those trials were public and built upon, they became life-saving medicines for people with other conditions.  

Check out the Leading with Every Action video from Part 1 of the series:


Senior-level leaders and C-suite roles are not immune to the employment factors contributing to the great migration. If we have learned anything over the past two years, Leading with Every Action guest commenter Rahul Shah from Sattva Consulting says it’s time for open, honest conversations about succession planning. Organizational leadership must adequately plan for the “who” comes next in addition to the “what” comes next that we typically see in strategic plans. 

Those responsible for nonprofit succession planning and hiring need to be mindful of current trends in the sector and study three categories, in particular: 

We need to acknowledge that the pandemic has created significant challenges in the labor market affecting all types and sizes of nonprofits. Employees demand higher wages, institutions are rebuilding, there are scores of unfilled positions, and the nonprofit sector is now competing with higher wages already offered in the commercial industries. 

Nonprofits are just starting to understand how to respond to changing employee needs at the organizational level. Firms that have done well and have retained top talent have implemented creative programs to assist their employees—including offering flexibility in work hours, mental health assistance, childcare needs, mindfulness programs, and bringing in external people to teach classes on topics about which employees are interested.

At the individual level, people have started looking inward and assessing their priorities. They’re also re-assessing work-life balance and considering more heavily positions that offer things like early retirement, part-time hours, or the ability to take some time off to address stress or burnout.

What Rahul has discovered is that these trends, when taken together, influence the larger industry. Nonprofits seeing success are not the companies that move the quickest or which are the most agile, but the ones with the most sustainable practices and those which put significant time and energy, and resources into employee health and wellbeing. 

Developing mid-tier leaders 

Mid-tier leaders are essential to large and growing organizations. They are a bridge between senior leadership driving the mission and staff implementing programs that drive impact. Trends in nonprofit employment affect mid-tier nonprofit leaders, and Rahul Shah says there are two critical ways senior leaders can mitigate risks in their organization. 

Mitigating risk with organizational design 

The best way to mitigate the risk of losing mid-tier leaders is to incorporate succession planning directly into your org chart. One way to achieve good organizational design is to create deputy director positions or #2s across any business unit. Another is to develop bench strength by creating fellowship opportunities or partnerships with local colleges and universities which provide talent that can fill in when departures occur—more on this below in conjunction with retaining senior leaders with succession planning.

Mitigating risk with organizational culture 

Changing your organizational culture is not easy, but it’s often necessary to retain top talent. The goal is to create growth opportunities that cater to the interest of individuals beyond what their existing roles offer. Start by allowing employees to spend time on other teams and getting to know leaders from different departments. This helps increase the frequency of lateral moves, especially where employees find that the work of a separate department might better match their skills and experience.

Another way to mitigate the risk of potential mid-tier departures is to develop leadership projects where employees gain experience or hold positions earlier in their career than they might have otherwise had the chance to do.  

Retaining top talent and senior leaders 

It can get lonely at the top, increasing burnout and dissatisfaction with one’s position in leadership, which is especially true in fast-paced, high-stress environments and nonprofits focused on high-yield performance.  

Nonprofits are creating innovative programs, modifying benefits, and practicing better succession planning to mitigate attrition among senior leaders. 

Some nonprofits have started offering senior-level coaching and mentor programs with board members. Other organizations are working hard to build their brands as inspirational employers, while some are developing deeper benches and talent pipelines that support those senior positions. 

Succession planning for senior leaders 

Rahul recommends that every organization plan for the succession of their senior leaders. In general, he recommends planning in three distinct ways 

  1. Emergency—these are the sudden departures that happen with little warning. 
  1. Planned—these are situations when you know a particular leader is departing and have time to prepare for it. 
  1. Leadership development—this is your ongoing process to attract, develop, and retain top talent. 

The key to succession planning is not to wait until the last moment. Be proactive, not reactive. Create committees to plan the succession of all senior leaders so the burden does not fall on any one individual or a single board member. 

Nonprofit succession planning mitigates risk

When planning, you need to work with the information and staff you have today but try to account for potential unknowns and develop plans to address them. Here are a few steps to follow: 

  • Identify critical roles within your organization that might be missing and which put your organization at risk. 
  • Build profiles or archetypes for the people you want to fill those positions should they become available. 
  • Look internally to see if those archetypes already exist within your company and which could be available to fill those roles once they open. 
  • If those archetypes don’t exist or if there are gaps in skill sets required for those positions, consider providing opportunities for mid-tier leaders to build those skill sets so they can step into senior roles when they become available. 

Organizations that rely on volunteer work can use the same process and programs to evaluate risk in their operations. 

Once a succession plan is made, don’t just stick it in a binder and file it away on a shelf somewhere. Instead, dust it off from time to time and make sure it’s still relevant to the mission and vision of your organization. In this way, your succession plans can be dynamic, living documents. 

View the second part of the Leading with Every Action video series:


Evaluating the performance of our nonprofit employees is not just about measuring numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s about taking that whole person’s experience into account and giving them opportunities to see themselves and their values at work in your organization’s mission and its impact. 

Designing your organization with a culture that celebrates its employees and their wins regularly while being mindful of trends and the changing employment landscape can help you retain talent at the mid-tier levels. In addition, offering incentives, modifying comp plans to match individual needs, and providing executive training can help you plan for senior leadership succession, make their jobs more enjoyable, and even contribute to enhanced performance. 

Remember to be proactive, not reactive. Being reactive puts your organization at risk and has ripple effects internally and externally. Own your mistakes when they happen and build transparency and accountability into your nonprofit’s culture. 

If you have questions or need more help designing a plan to retain your top talent, reach out to one (or more) of the partners who contributed to this series using the information listed below.  And don’t forget to check out our previous Leading with Every Action titled Guiding Your Organization with Focus and Clarity.

Leading with Every Action Guest Speakers

Shannon McCracken, CAE 

Shannon leads The Nonprofit Alliance (TNPA), a membership association that launched in 2018 with unprecedented support and momentum to promote, protect, and strengthen the nonprofit sector. Prior to her role with TNPA, she spent two years as Charity Navigator’s Chief Development Officer, facilitating communication with nonprofit organizations and dramatically increasing resources to ensure successful implementation of a new strategic plan. She now serves on Charity Navigator’s board of directors. Previously, Shannon spent 17 years with Special Olympics International, most recently as Vice President of Donor Development, building and managing a collaborative individual fundraising program on behalf of the global HQ and North American chapters. Shannon served as the DMA Nonprofit Federation Advisory Council Chair and Chair of the Ethics Committee. She is a Certified Association Executive and holds a master’s degree in Nonprofit and Association Management. Learn more about The Nonprofit Alliance at https://tnpa.org/ or email Shannon at smccracken@tnpa.org.

Leigh Janis 

As the Director of Sales and Brand Strategy, she currently leads the Business Development and Marketing team at Production Solutions. Leigh is a pacesetting, performance-driven team player. She serves the nonprofit community by volunteering and supporting many industry associations.  In 2020, Leigh was named as one of Marketing EDGE’s Rising Stars which honors talented professionals 40 years or younger who are leading the industry by disrupting the status quo and changing the way they market their organizations. Learn more about Production Solutions at https://www.productionsolutions.com

Lance Slaughter  

As Senior Vice President, Strategic Alliances and Governance, Lance is responsible for cultivating partnerships and effectively communicating the mission and work of the ALS Association throughout the ALS organizational network and in the broader community, and identify the most important Association assets that can be leveraged to create value for the entire ALS community. Lance is also responsible for ensuring effective governance Association-wide, providing programmatic support and counsel to the Board of Trustees, offering staff support to the Association Strategic Plan, Association committees and working groups, and ensuring the effectiveness of their work. Learn more about Lance and the ALS Association at https://www.als.org

Rahul Shah 

Rahul leads the Regional Business at Sattva Consulting, a management consulting / implementation firm with a mission to end poverty in our lifetime. Over the past five years at Sattva, he has led 40+ engagements across a variety of stakeholders including nonprofits, social enterprises, foundations, corporates, impact investors and philanthropists ranging from short-term advisory to long-term implementation, impact assessment studies and more. Learn more about Sattva Consulting at https://www.sattva.co.in.