Monday, April 30, 2007

A Look at Best Practices

I get this question all the time: "How can you tell when "best practice" really is best practice?" This is a great question. Often, I find in economic development, there are NO best practices, only lots of self-proclaimed best practices. But let's see what a expert has to say.

Jason Saul, the author of Benchmarking for Nonprofits: How to Measure, Manage, and Improve Performance, provides some good advice and insights on this question. Let's look at the basics Saul talks about.

The term best practice gets thrown around a lot these days. Everyone strives to make their programs "best practice." Books and websites compile "best practices." Funders ask that we seek out best practice and adapt our programs accordingly. The concept gets tossed about so much that most of us would just as soon toss it out completely. Much of the time, it seems more like someone else's impossible dream than a manageable, practical goal.

Saul defines a best practice is the most successful and efficient means of achieving a particular outcome for an organization.

He continues to note that best practices are always relative. Lists of "best practices" are often less-than-useful, because these practices are divorced from the processes that created them. Without the knowledge of processes used to achieve an outcome, the actual best practice has little meaning. It is entirely possible that one organization's best practice may be the worst for another. For example, a board retreat may be a time-honored tradition that energizes board recruits for one organization. For another, board retreats may be time-wasting and counterproductive--not because the retreat itself is not a "best practice" but because the board has other effective ways of energizing recruits.

Saul lists six guiding principles for best practice:

-Is there a proven track record of success? (Obviously, without a track record, the success could be a fluke unrelated to the "best practice.")

-Are the results sustainable? (A practice that requires unsustainable inputs will eventually fail.)

-Can the idea be replicated? (A practice that is unique to a particular leader or set of circumstances has little chance of being adapted to fit another leader or situation.)

-Is it cost-effective? (As with sustainability, a practice that is too expensive for its results is not "best.")

-Does it help us achieve our mission? (Mission relationship is at the heart of any practice we adapt.)

-Does it fit the particular context? (Many practices are suitable only for certain situations and not for others.)

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