Best Practices

Ten years ago I attended a conference called “The High Performing Nonprofit.” The conference was excellent, and it got me to thinking about the concept of “best practices.” Now, ten years later, I’m still hearing that term, and it continues to bother me. Here are a few statements from that conference that may help us think differently about how we lead and manage.

“Effectiveness is a relative concept.” What works for one does not necessarily work for another. For example, a frequent question is whether or not it is appropriate for the primary staff person – the Executive Director, CEO, or whatever he/she is called – to be a voting member of the board. In most cases the answer is a resounding “No.” However, there are cases where it is the accepted or even the most appropriate practice.

“Simplistic approaches are dangerous.” If hard and fast measures based on past performance are used to determine whether a nonprofit is being effective, creativity and risk-taking are restricted. A balance is better. In all organizations trying and failing needs to be an option.

“What gets measured gets done. Not all important things can be measured.” Just because an organization can measure outcomes does not mean those are the outcomes that should be measured. This gets into the very technical issue of evaluation which is too complex to cover here. Suffice to say, evaluation probably should be both objective and subjective.

Finally, the most important statement was “[maintaining] internal accountability to our values.” Said another way, everything flows from mission. If we stay true to our mission, we’ll stay on the right track.

In sum, there is no “best” practice. Board and staff leaders cannot look to some list and say, “When we do all these things we will be effective.” Leadership is hard work, and, on this topic, the hard work is to determine what is the most effective practice for your nonprofit.

© Elizabeth M. Heath 2012

Published in a 2011 issue of “Perspectives”, an irregularly published newsletter from Sound Nonprofits. To receive this newsletter, go to the Contact Us page.