Frequently Asked Questions—and Answers—About Performance Evaluations

Have questions about performance evaluations? We’ve got answers.

1. Is it okay to bring up an issue in an evaluation that I’ve never raised before? How do I frame it if I do?

We management pontificators (pontifs for short) like to say that nothing in a performance evaluation should be a surprise because you’ve been giving the staff member feedback throughout the year. In reality, we know that evaluations are a time when you step back to think more deeply about how a staff member is doing than you might in the day-to-day. This opportunity to look at the bigger picture means that you might spot trends that you didn’t notice or simply think to frame something differently.

If you find yourself in this situation, be transparent about it. You could say, “I realize I’ve never brought this up before, but in reflecting on how things went this year, this occurred to me as something important to discuss.”

With that said, we do not recommend “saving” feedback for the evaluation. If you have feedback (including praise) to share, do it soon after it comes up—the longer you wait, the less effective it’ll be.

2. What if we didn’t set goals or set expectations about the “how”?

It’s hard to fairly evaluate how well someone met expectations if those expectations were never set or communicated. If this is the case, consider reframing this evaluation as a reflection and discussion instead. Then, make the most of it by doing a rough assessment (and having your staff do a self-assessment) that answers the following questions:

  • What do you think the person should have accomplished over this period? What did they actually accomplish?
  • Did they demonstrate the organization’s core values and the skills and attitudes needed for success in the role?

In this situation, focus less on the ratings and more on the narrative portions of the evaluation. Approach the conversation as a chance to get aligned on what went well, what could have been better, and what the expectations are moving forward.

3. How much should we take context or extenuating circumstances into account when assessing results?

It’s reasonable to take context into account. If your development director didn’t meet their fundraising goal for the year, but it’s because the stock market dropped significantly, acknowledge that. Or, if they (just barely) met their target because of a large and unexpected gift, it’s reasonable to point out that they should have been able to exceed it.

Sometimes extenuating circumstances are more personal, which can be especially tricky. In these cases, it’s especially important to evaluate the “how” in addition to the “what.” For example, if your development director didn’t meet their fundraising goal because they had to take an extended medical leave, you might consider how they communicated to you and the rest of the team or how they handed off their projects.

The fundamental question to ask is, “How do we feel about the results we produced?” Goals are a guidepost in helping you answer that and context provides a backdrop for assessing the results.

4. Should I do anything differently for high performers?

Treat it like a retention conversation. With high performers, make the primary point of your evaluation to recognize their work and ensure that they feel valued. When thinking about areas of improvement, frame it in terms of how they could go from good to great (or great to greater!). For example, you could say to your communications manager, “You’ve done a great job at managing our editorial calendar and making sure we meet all of our publishing deadlines. I encourage you to be even more proactive about sharing ideas to achieve even higher engagement with our base.” You can also use this as an opportunity to talk about what their next steps in the organization might be. What might the “next level” look like for them? Are there new responsibilities and challenges they’d like to take on? What would it take to get them to sign on for another two years?

5. When should we do evaluations?

Because performance evaluations often go hand-in-hand with promotion decisions (which typically come with raises), aligning your evaluation cycle with your fiscal year makes sense. For some organizations, this means starting the process at the end of the year (say, November or December). We recommend doing all of them at once, rather than timing it with individual work anniversaries. The concentrated timing makes it easier for the whole team to prioritize and focus on performance evaluations. Also, having a performance evaluation “season” creates greater accountability and cements feedback as part of your organizational culture.

6. How much time should we set aside to do evaluations?

We recommend providing a lot of time and space for the process. At least six weeks before evaluations are due, inform all staff that the process is starting. Have managers share key deadlines with their staff and get them on the calendar: a) deadline for self-evaluation; b) deadline for the manager evaluation; and c) meeting time for discussion. We strongly recommend minimizing or pausing other organization-wide commitments or asks (such as surveys, new initiatives, etc.). One common pitfall organizations encounter is treating evaluations as an item on the HR checklist that’s rolled out on top of the “real work” that people are already doing. Instead, treat it as a priority that helps you re-align, retain, and cultivate the team that you need.

7. My organization has never done evaluations before. What do I need to do to get started?

Make sure you have defined roles and goals for each staff member. This includes outcomes or results they should achieve within a specific time frame, and any values, skills, or mindsets they are expected to demonstrate. (If you don’t have this groundwork laid, you can still create and launch an initiative for all staff to reflect on and discuss performance, but it’ll be slightly different from a traditional performance evaluation.)

Set aside ample time for the process and assign someone to own it. This person can be your Chief of Staff, HR Director, or a similar role.

When it’s time to kick off performance evaluations, start by sharing the “why.” Here are some reasons you can share for doing annual performance evaluations:

  • Impact: To make sure you have the team and results you need to drive your mission.
  • Growth: To be intentional and clear about supporting and empowering your team to grow through feedback, reflection, and direct communication.
  • Fairness: To minimize bias and increase two-way accountability between managers and staff.
  • Transparency: To provide clarity for staff on their opportunities for advancement within the organization (and the requisite development needs).

Then, share the mechanics of how it’ll work, such as the timeline and MOCHA. Here’s a sample email.

8. I’m the ED/CEO of my organization. Who should conduct my evaluation? How is my evaluation similar to or different from a standard staff evaluation?

If you work at a non-profit, your evaluation should be conducted by your board, steering committee, or other volunteer leadership entity. Often, the board will assign one person (usually one of the officers or chairs) or a small committee of people to manage the process. Some elements of your evaluation will be similar to a standard staff evaluation, such as gathering input from others, like direct reports and external stakeholders.

Here are some of the differences:

  • The evaluation will take into consideration the overall organizational health and accomplishments.
  • The evaluation is typically discussed by the entire board without any staff present (though only one or two people might be assigned the task of sharing the results and feedback with you).

Check out our ED Evaluation Form Template.