Many nonprofits struggle with consistency in setting up and conducting their staff performance reviews. There are many reasons for this, including lack of time and lack of focus on organizational issues. But also a lack of insight into how individual team members are performing overall. Very often there is awkwardness, too. Is there space for critique where there is much commitment and low pay? How can you weave your conversations around performance into your daily work? Here are my 5 tips for performance reviews in your nonprofit.


Most organizations strive towards a practice where leadership has conversations with each team member individually twice per year about their performance. Sometimes there is a real appraisal involved, that can lead to a salary increase or a warning. The basis for these conversations is the set of agreed responsibilities, tasks and competencies as described in the job description. The conversations usually lead to plans for the next period, including issues to pay (more) attention to and development plans for the staff member. Both sides sign off on reports that are kept on file for future reference.


As I mentioned above, many nonprofits find it challenging to keep up with performance reviews for many different reasons. It is difficult to find time for this, amidst busy schedules and donor-driven deadline calendars. It is often not considered as key as some other tasks on the to do-list. Sometimes the manager finds it hard to assess what the staff member, volunteer or intern has been doing and what the quality and added value of it was. Many managers dread this conversation because they feel a need to share critical remarks and do not know how to do this without getting into a discussion. Equally, many staff members dread these conversations, being afraid of negative feedback.

Tip 1 – job description

The basis of any feedback on performance must be agreement on what the person is supposed to be responsible for, what competencies they are expected to display and what tasks you require them to take care of. These issues are addressed in a job description or job profile. You share this with the employee, intern or volunteer at the start of their work with you. And sign off on it then. If this has not happened, or if the job has changed significantly since then, you may need to plan a session to review and adjust the job description before planning any performance reviews. This may feel like another delay, just when you are trying to get up to speed on this. But trust me, agreeing on this ‘baseline’ is crucial to the success and credibility of any further steps.

Tip 2 – make a review prep list

Now that you have an agreed and up-to-date job description, you can use this to prepare an overview of issues to discuss during the review. You can make a template out of this that the team member can use to prepare and self-score. That way, the conversation can zoom in on the areas where your assessment and theirs differ significantly.



Tip 3 – don’t underestimate the power of positive feedback

Many managers dread performance reviews because they think they need to focus on the things that are not going well. And they are not looking forward to having a heated discussion about how the staff member is not to blame for this or that going wrong because ….

Think about it, though. Most people move much faster on assignments where they feel they are flying. Tasks they think they are good at and appreciated for. Paying too much attention to everything that has gone wrong will only help make sure they lose their touch for things they excel at. Because they will become too focused on avoiding mistakes and future critique and spend much less time on what they like and do well. If you pay compliments for things they have done well and highlight qualities they displayed that might help them improve their work in other areas, this may help them develop weaker points (at least a bit).

Tip 4 – continuous feedback

In my view, the main reason why nobody sees performance reviews as the useful development tool they can be is because these sessions are given too much weight. People think that every issue and every viewpoint must be discussed in these one or two sessions. I have seen reviews that lasted all day because of that! I do believe in spending time together twice per year to look back and ahead. And in doing that slightly formally and with written reports that are signed off on.

But nothing discussed there must be a surprise. In my experience, any feedback has far more impact if given in a positive way, and with a focus on the positive, on the spot and throughout the year. That works much better as an incentive and support for your team. And it will make sure that whatever you bring up in the formal sittings, will not come out of thin air. This will also help your team feel more safe and less scared of performance review sessions.

Tip 5 – make a simple action plan

Whether you need to get started from scratch or want to revive your practice as written down, make sure you start with a simple action plan. Try to formulate one or two action items per week for the next four weeks. And be sure to allocate time slots to them in your calendar right away.

Imagine where you could be a month from now! You might have, for instance:

  • Collected and read all job descriptions (week1)
  • Planned job description review sessions with staff as needed (week 1)
  • Held 2 job description review sessions (week 2)
  • Collected your own positive feedback on 3 team members in a notebook (week 2)
  • Developed job review prep lists for 2 positions (week 3)
  • Shared positive feedback, on the job, with 3 team members (week 3)
  • Planned job review sessions with all staff (week 4)
  • Shared positive feedback, on the job, with 3 team members (week 4)

Do you see how your energy around performance reviews might be much different by then?

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