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PMNO Perspectives: Sarah Wong, Amnesty International

By: Sarah Wong 06 Sep 2018

Sarah Wong, deputy director of organizational development at Amnesty International, sees performance management as an essential tool for developing leaders in the nonprofit sector. To gain insight into the latest thinking in her field and beyond, she attended Performance Measurement for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations (PMNO) at Harvard Business School (HBS) Executive Education. In this interview, she shares her thoughts about the program.How did you hear about this program and why did you decide to attend? After years of working in the nonprofit sector, I wanted to expand my knowledge of leadership–to go beyond the latest article or book and explore theory and experiences outside of my own field. I chose Performance Measurement for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations for its structure and for the opportunity to study alongside leaders of other nonprofits.

Did any insights from the program resonate with you? The program covered an array of topics, but what resonated the most with me were three things that I now use to structure my view of the big picture and my organization's approach to implementation. Question Zero: What are we trying to achieve? The Value, Capacity, and Support model: Is our work full of dreams or nightmares? And the Minimum Viable Product (MVP): Are we using pilots to demonstrate or are we actually taking risks and experimenting?

By looking at our Question Zero and its connection to our strategy, we are able to set a more direct tone. All too often we're not brave enough or we don't want to question our do-good work, so we gloss over our Question Zero in favor of looking at strategy or, in our case, important human rights tasks. Our world is changing quickly. We organize differently, we receive information more rapidly, and human rights are being challenged daily. Focusing on Question Zero helps leaders in both governance and management ensure that we're coordinating our efforts and resources effectively.

Establishing where our work sits on the very simple Value, Capacity, and Support model has provided clarity. This model makes it clear that we need to support teams–so that we not only have more congruency between mission, capacity, and support, but we also red flag when work slips into the category of capacity and support but is not in line with a particular mission. The model also helped me to recognize that we need to invest in innovation, and therefore support ideas that may not have capacity or support but are part of building our risk capital and innovative thinking.

Finally, the MVP discussion was very new to me. I've spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, so it was interesting to learn of a private-sector initiative geared toward social enterprises. Often we label activities as pilots when in reality there is no experimentation or risk. We may be missing out on opportunities to learn if we are setting up pilots to demonstrate instead of experiment. This approach feeds into the limited risk appetite of nonprofits, which is something we are not always aware of.

How do you plan to implement what you learned in your organization? The tools and simple models that I learned have already reshaped how I see the big picture. The models have given me a more structured approach, and I am integrating what I learned into the way I see challenges–I now see them as opportunities for change. Change requires not only leadership, but also some tough conversations. The tools I acquired in this program are helping me to frame those conversations as more direct or manageable topics.

This post was originally published in the HBS Executive Education Resource Library