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Are Nonprofit Best Practices Stupid?

Posted by Hardy Smith on Nov 15, 2018 2:04:44 PM

Are Nonprofit Best Practices Stupid?We’ve all heard that familiar quote about continuing to do something the exact same way you’ve done it in the past yet expecting a different result. It’s like a dog chasing its tail. Is your nonprofit constantly chasing elusive solutions?

Nonprofits share many problems. Issues such as donor retention, volunteer turnover, and board member engagement are just a few that plague nonprofits on an ongoing basis.

And, not by coincidence, nonprofits also share frustration because common approaches fail to yield positive results. Why continue to invest limited time and resources doing what doesn't work? Perhaps best practices that don't produce positive outcomes really are stupid.

Speaker colleague Stephen Shapiro is an expert on innovation. His book Best Practices Are Stupid examines why applying conventional solutions to conventional problems can be a barrier to success.

Stephen's book provides action strategies for incorporating innovative thinking as a way to identify effective approaches to organizational issues. He offers three reasons why best practices are stupid.

  • Replication is not innovation. If you are copying others, you are playing a game of catch-up.
  • What works for one organization may not work for another because there may be no cultural or strategic fit.
  • Practices we label as best may not even be the reason an organization has become successful.

According to Stephen, it's often a fresh perspective that generates breakthrough solutions. New product applications (think back to sticky notes) that completely revitalize a business and generate answers to difficult problems can come from sources with no apparent connection to those struggling with a tough challenge. This requires thought, and it begins with a evaluation of current practices.

Can you imagine using formaldehyde as a food preservative? Sounds absurd right? How about calming a restless baby down with a dose of a morphine-based elixir? Believe it or not, at one time both of these were considered routine practices.  

And just as these practices were eventually questioned, you must question your own activities and procedures. Are they are producing positive outcomes?

If you review a particular program or process and you find its justification is the familiar “we’ve always done it that way,” consider that to be a red flag for digging deeper into whether or not it should be continued. But be mindful; some practices may only require modification. Don’t just mindlessly toss out what’s old.

And don’t just revisit what you ARE doing. What is not being done can affect performance as much as doing something ineffectively. Just ask the generous folks at the MacArthur Foundation. .

In the past, the foundation provided financial support without regard to focused giving and without concern for measurable outcomes. But as it began to question those practices with a desire to ensure maximum impact for its investments, it has moved to a concentrated strategy for specific support targets. It has adopted expectations for results.

Don't let conditioned behavior hold your cause back. Rather than follow “best” practices that may be wrong for you, adopt practices that will make a transformational difference.

Can you think of an essential activity that you are currently not doing?  One that  I find particularly puzzling was unearthed in Underdeveloped — A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, a project jointly underwritten by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. The report cites that a significant number of nonprofits don’t pay attention to actually formulating plans for their fundraising and development activities. Isn’t funding a priority need for advancing any mission? Wouldn’t good planning promote the success of activities designed to ensure adequate funding?

Another example of encouragement for reconsidering current practices is BoardSource’s publication Breaking the Gala Addiction, which discusses rethinking expensive galas and considering activities that generate a higher level of return on investment of time and resources.

In an era where disruption and rapid change is the norm, innovative ideas and actions to generate new and improved practices are needed.

Start innovation by answering these three questions.

  1. What current practices should you reconsider?
  2. What new practices should you adopt?
  3. Who or what resources can be a source of transformative thinking for your nonprofit?

Identify your “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it practices.” They are holding back your “what’s-possible.”

Discuss them during staff and board conversation; incorporate them into planning session discussion. (You can also use this as an opportunity to discuss the power of strategic alliances to help you achieve your mission — something that many nonprofits are reluctant to discuss — for more information, head to BoardSource’s initiative, The Power of Possibility).

After thorough evaluation, take action.

Continue to follow best practices that work for your organization. Leave behind those stupid ones that are no longer relevant or productive.

Topics: Board Best Practices

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