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  • Writer's pictureSheena Sullivan

The problem with nonprofit performance evals (and what to do instead)

The nonprofit staff and their talents are the heart and the soul, the engine and fuel of any organization. It’s not surprising then that performance management is one of the top three talent management priorities in 2022, according to a study by Nonprofit HR.

Nonprofits face a growing demand from stakeholders for transparency regarding social mission achievement and resource utilization. As follows, there’s increasing urgency on behalf of nonprofit leaders around improving internal operations and demonstrating legitimacy to funders and the larger community. Performance management systems continue to provide better information when implementing organizational change, assessing risk, and aligning organizational culture and staff performance with strategic goals.

Performance evaluations (also called annual evaluations, employee evaluations, and performance appraisals, among other names) are a critical part of an organization’s performance management system.

What are performance evaluations?

The performance eval is a process and method whereby the organization uses determined standards and indicators to evaluate employees’ past work performance in alignment with the organization’s strategic goals. Organizational leadership uses the results of the eval to guide the employee’s future behavior and performance positively, as well as to inform work assignments and compensation.

Should managers still do performance evaluations?

Some organizations and sector leaders have proposed throwing out employee evaluations in recent years, citing them as “archaic” and suggesting that they support hierarchical, inequitable organizational structures. While it’s true that evals and larger performance management systems can damage organizations under certain circumstances, there’s no empirical evidence to date that supports doing away with performance management.

On the contrary, a growing body of literature indicates that problems with performance management systems center on the manager, at least in part. Many supervisors are doing poorly at performance management, rendering their systems ineffective. Ineffective performance management fails to improve performance and flops at motivating, engaging, and guiding employee development. At worst, their performance management systems are doing more than good.

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The most harmful type of performance evaluations

One of nonprofit managers' biggest mistakes when conducting performance evaluations is using an “open box” method. These types of evals include open-ended questions (e.g., Describe the employee’s most significant accomplishments). Evals with open-ended questions are incredibly problematic.

Open box evals rely on subjective feedback from a single perspective — the manager’s. Worse, research shows that open-box evals subconsciously lead evaluators to consider race, gender, and other stereotypes.

Evals of this nature can result in employee disappointment, dissatisfaction, and the rejection of the entire performance review process. They can also create suspicion and cynicism regarding the values and credibility of management, which deteriorates commitment and engagement.

On the other hand, a positive evaluation experience on the employee's behalf can increase their trust in their supervisor’s values, which ultimately drives commitment and engagement.

James LaRue, the author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing

Intellectual Freedom Challenges asserts that a clear rubric is a critical component of meaningful evaluations. Experts agree that rubric-based employee evaluations are one way to close the “open box.”


Rubrics present an opportunity to systematize employee evaluations by establishing clear expectations so that employees know how managers will evaluate them and what the expectations are. Furthermore, managers who start by creating a rubric, then complete the assessment and provide feedback are less likely to fall back on stereotypes, leading to less bias in evaluations.

Rubrics used for performance evaluations are much like the rubrics teachers use to provide feedback to students on school assignments. They are a table that includes pre-determined assessment criteria and boxes to indicate whether the evaluatee exceeded, met, or failed to meet the standard.

The job description is a great place to start when designing a performance evaluation rubric. Next, you might consider organizational goals and how each person’s job fits into those larger goals. Finally, a key to keeping the rubric evaluation system objective is deciding before conducting an individual evaluation what it means to exceed and meet expectations and when improvement is needed.

The WorkLife School offers workshops and one-on-one coaching on rubric-based employee evaluations and larger performance management systems. Sign-up or contact us to learn more about implementing a performance management system that produces positive results for your staff and organization.

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