OKRs for NGOs

How a global nonprofit uses OKRs for civic innovation

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Sometimes just having a lofty mission isn’t enough for nonprofits and non-government organizations (NGOs). The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic began to exasperate overextended institutions and challenge an already struggling social sector, particularly in Argentina. Not only did many strong NGOs close their doors in Argentina, but NGOs faced closures across the continent as well. However, Civic House, a network of nonprofits focused on empowering civic innovation in Latin America, has not only survived the pandemic thus far, but its international team has grown over the past year.

María Laclau, community and communications coordinator of Civic House, believes the organization’s survival throughout the past year is due to its unique structure and model.

“We have new openings and new roles and we are growing,” said Maria. “We know that we are very privileged, but we also know that it has a lot to do with how we develop our projects. This is the mindset of having sustainability models that are diverse and strong.”

The work of Civic House is rooted in civic innovation - an umbrella term used to illustrate how organizations and individuals mobilize to change their societies. Leaning on the power of technology, Civic House’s nine resident organizations focus on a wide range of civic solutions. One of their most popular resident organizations is change.org - the largest online petition platform in the world.

Chief among the solutions are promoting NGO autonomy and financial predictability, reducing the technological gender gap, database sharing, software testing, and personal virtual assistant services for the inclusion of trans people in the workforce.

The practice of generating new ideas backed by current technology is what enables Civic House to deliver ground-breaking citizen-based solutions. It’s a win-win situation. The NGO helps empower people who in turn work to increase the Human Development Index, thus improving the life of its citizens. While the purpose of civic innovation is straightforward, in practice, it is quite complex. It requires engagement, complex problem solving, cross-sector collaboration, public resource investment, dedication, and patience as incremental institutional changes are realized.

As overwhelming as this all seems, Civic House is able to do so by incorporating OKRs solidly and consistently to achieve Big Hairy Goals. Since each resident organization has its own initiatives, Civic House’s OKRs serve as a community base for all nine organizations. The organizations remain aligned by constantly measuring performance while remaining grounded in its overall mission, which is to transform Latin America with innovative tech solutions.

“The OKR methodology really helps us stay focused because even though we have been growing, the social sector is always a challenge because we have less human resources,” Laclau explained.

Civic House founder and CEO, Mario Lopez, explained that when planning a new quarter, every team leader begins with a shared understanding of their team’s purpose in relation to the organization’s mission, ensuring that the main objectives are always mission-driven.

“We noticed that this methodology was helping us to improve the team’s collaboration,” Lopez added. “The planning process became more fluid and participative, where different points of views were discussed openly and as a result, better objectives were prioritized.

Starting with OKRs

IBM, Salesforce, and the Hewlett Foundation are some of Civic House’s project partners. All successful companies with some KPI-type system in place for the NGO to emulate. However, it was Civic House’s partnership with Google that galvanized the team around OKRs.

“[Google has] always been an inspiration on how to work better,” said Laclau. “We have lots of instances of teams thinking and working with OKRs,” she said. “And the experience was just great.”

Since OKRs are meant to be collaborative, the top-down, bottom-up approach to planning provided a sense of immediate transparency making it easier for everyone to be aware of objectives. The teams’ first step toward implementation was learning more about the OKR methodology together. Getting the basics right became the target and it started with questions. What was the team’s understanding of objectives and key results? How could they outline what KP was attainable and measurable? How could they determine what made a strong objective? What did a strong objective mean?

“We had trainings [sessions with a coach] where we were guided to think about our OKRs in a more thorough way,” recalled Laclau.

The team eventually adopted a pace and rhythm for their reflections best suited for them.

“The process of reflecting on your OKRs after a cycle - hopefully, a 3 months cycle - is the better way to guarantee you are after your goal,” Lopez shared. “You will learn your mistakes at a faster pace. This also helps an organization to reflect more frequently on its mission, the way it is described, transmitted, and shown to internal or external stakeholders.”

Young latin woman working with computer and her coworkers at the office or coworking in Mexico

Many Teams, One Mission

With offices in Mexico City, Bogota, and Buenos Aires, additional teams across South America, and nine resident organizations, the primary charge of Civic House’s leadership team was to keep everyone aligned and focused. Leaders at each level of Civic House defined the type of high-level, qualitative, and inspirational goals that would then determine behavioral changes among teams. OKRs helped Civic House so everyone could learn quickly, adapt readily and accelerate when they needed to. All this, while recognizing the unique body of work for each faction.

Civic House uses software to manage status updates and weekly reflections. The team relies on weekly CFRs to accurately check in on progress in real-time as well as inform OKRs for the next cycle. This prevents silos from forming and teams duplicating OKRs. It also allowed for real-time collaboration.

“Every Monday, I submit a reflection, I make a summary of the most important things I accomplished in the week,” said Laclau. “I also map the priorities for the next week. It’s really important to get visibility on this.”

After submitting reflections, the team gets together for weekly meetings at the beginning of the week to discuss them. Laclau noted that basing these weekly conversations on reflections aids the team in prioritizing specific solutions, making swift decisions, and identifying where additional support may be needed. Company-wide quarterly meetings are planned where team members discuss their OKRs at length and identify potential barriers.
Laclau also shares that OKRs actually helps her on a personal level while she navigates her dual role of communication and community coordinator.

“I’m very obsessive and I want everything to be done to perfection, but OKRs make me stop and face reality,” she said. “Having OKRs helps me focus so I can stop obsessing on minute details and deliver solutions.”

From a team perspective, Laclau shared that the team’s habit of not only setting OKRs, but regularly tracking and reviewing them increases their overall collaboration and has equipped Civic House to face the new normal in the aftermath of the pandemic, and take on the new challenges in the sector.
“If we know that someone missed something, we can always back them up,” Laclau emphasized. “We can find collaborative ways of making everyone meet their OKRs. It makes our team as a whole better. It brings something out of our work culture that’s unique and it makes you stop thinking about goals in an individual manner, and we start thinking more as a community.”

Civic House, like many nonprofits and NGOs serving the social sector, faces unique challenges in comparison to the private sector. Especially, when it comes to expanding services. Social impact performance indicators must be equal to the business and funding side. Although NGOs aren’t a business, they must operate as one. If not, they are faced with funding fluctuations that could threaten a shift in priorities. Institutions must demonstrate how and what to measure when it comes to how social impact objectives are being achieved. A much much harder calculation than, say, a P&L statement.

Laclau points out that the objectives and key results framework offers advantages for the social sector because OKRs function beyond a simple to-do list - which nonprofits and NGOs don’t always execute well.

“That’s why OKRs are so important,” Laclau adds. “They really should be used more in the social sector if NGOs want to be more efficient, professional, and make better use of their resources.”

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