Rethinking Nonprofit Performance Reviews

By Eric Cormier

Eric Cormier
When it comes to nonprofit supervisors’ least favorite workplace responsibilities, it’s not surprising that performance reviews often top the list.

Many complain that these reviews, often scheduled annually, take up an inordinate amount of time, create employee anxiety, sometimes lead to confrontation with the employee being reviewed, and generally achieve no desirable result. Given these factors, why bother?

The answer, many human resources professionals agree, is that properly approached and conducted performance reviews can have great value. They improve organizational productivity, help develop employee skills, boost employee morale, increase job engagement, and further the success and career path of the supervisor conducting the reviews.

Moreover, professionally executed, well-documented employee reviews may at times become essential in the event of litigation against the employer.

The underlying problem with employee reviews is that many nonprofit organizations take an outdated approach to them. They are in the habit of only conducting these reviews annually, often at the end of the fiscal year when they are often distracted by other responsibilities, and they rely on obsolete forms that have not been revisited or revised in years. To make performance reviews more relevant and valuable, managers should reconsider their approach.

Many supervisors tend to see reviews as isolated events rather than the culmination of a continual process. They try to capture a year’s worth of goals and activities, successes and failures, in one document and present their thoughts during a single conversation. Rather than playing catch up at the last minute, supervisors should provide feedback and assess job performance qualities throughout the year.

There are several reasons why regular feedback is important:
  • In a fast-paced business world, goals can change unexpectedly, making it necessary for an employee to redirect his or her activities. If a supervisor is basing an employee’s success on outdated goals, the employee is going to be at a clear disadvantage.

  • Without ongoing, periodic reviews, there is a tendency to focus on the employee’s most recent experience on the job during the annual review, often referred to as recency bias. Nothing is more discouraging and unfair than a review in which a recent problem obscures the past year’s prior achievements. Of course, recency bias can work both ways, and one should guard against letting a very favorable recent event overshadow the entire review.

  • Regular feedback between supervisor and employee can reveal problems or concerns. If an employee is struggling with an assignment, having conflicts with coworkers or is feeling overwhelmed or underutilized, the supervisor immediately can determine the steps needed to remedy the situation.

  • Regularly scheduled conversations also can uncover new opportunities, such as an employee’s interest in a particular area or that he or she has gained a new skill.

  • Employees crave feedback. They want to know that the work they are doing is on task and that they are making a positive contribution. These touch points can allow the supervisor and employee to set goals and devise an individual plan for the employee’s professional growth.
Another issue that often detracts from performance reviews involves problematic paperwork. In the past, many nonprofit supervisors have relied on forms with numeric ratings from one to five for various goals and skills, with the highest number indicating the best work. These forms may appear to be a smart way to capture an employee’s abilities in a simple, easy-to-read document. However, there is an inherent problem with this approach.

Some supervisors feel comfortable always assigning high scores, whereas others may believe that no employee, no matter how competent, deserves a top score because no one is perfect. Further, and this is particularly true in the nonprofit world, employees often wear many hats and are called upon to offer assistance in areas outside of their day-to-day job. The work they are doing beyond their standard jobs may not be recognized on these forms. It is better to provide anecdotes showcasing an employee’s work and tie it to specific goals. After all, an employee is more than a number on a piece of paper.

Continuous communication between a supervisor and an employee can help reduce the anxiety over annual reviews because it removes the fear of any unexpected surprises. Again, this should be a constructive exchange that allows both parties to express their thoughts, opinions, concerns and any other issues. The ultimate goal of these reviews is to help the employee succeed at his or her job and provide value to the organization.

Eric Cormier is a senior human resources specialist in the Boston office of Insperity, a national provider of human resources and business performance solutions, whose clients include a variety of nonprofit organizations. Call 800-465-3800 or visit
February 2017