MP900386085I’m a sucker for innovation.  Anything new and exciting invariably catches my attention, as I’m sure it does you.  We are captivated by creative and artful ideas.  But, I’d venture to say that many nonprofits still haven’t taken the full opportunity to learn from others.
That’s not to say that best practices aren’t on our radar.  We discuss them at conferences, write about them in our grant proposals and reports, and read about them in our newsletters and studies.  But, how many are actually transferred and imbedded into our organizational fabric?  
Doesn’t it make sense to use the successful solutions from others to solve our nagging organizational problems?  Seems like a no brainer, but there are barriers to be sure.  Below are a few and their possible solutions —

Barrier #1 — No Clear Definition

I think our biggest barrier is the collective definition of “best practice.”  It seems like any good idea can be called a best practice, but when you really investigate there isn’t any proof that it works.  That’s a problem.  If we are going to spend the time, energy, and “risk capital” it takes to try a new tactic, we need to have some assurance that it has worked somewhere (and not just as a one-time success) and that people can articulate the how and why.  Solution — Define your best practices using clear criteria — such as innovative, proven, and sustainable — and be consistent in how you apply them.

Barrier #2 — No System

Most nonprofits do not have a consistent system for sharing best practices.  We talk about them, we may share some tools we use with our teammates, but most organizations do not have a system that identifies, captures, suggests, and tracks tactics that work.  Have you ever had a key staff person or volunteer leave your agency and take all their expertise with them?  Then, you know what I’m talking about.  Because no system existed, that individual was unable to transfer their knowledge to others.  That’s a big loss.  Solution — Create an online library of best practices that have been vetted, along with supportive documents, cases studies, and tools.  Use a wiki so everyone can post and share (try this one — www.wikispaces.org).

Barrier #3 — No Rewards

Risk taking is rarely incentivized.  Funders and management often focus on short-term performance outcomes.  It’s hard to innovate when it may take months or years to see a return on our investment.  And, many decision-makers don’t have the time or patience to wait that long, even if the long-term gains may outweigh the short-term ones.  Solution — Create an awards program that recognizes people who try new things, even if they fail.  Publicize these heroic stories.

Two More Barriers 

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Why Best Practices are Hard to Practice, Ron Ashkenas noted two barriers to applying best practices successfully: 

  1. Lack of adaption — Taking on the new tool or process without adapting it to your environment.  Tweaks need to be made, even when transferring them from one team to another in the same organization.  Solution — Make sure freedom and flexibility are present and encouraged.
  2.  Lack of adoption — Taking on the new tool or process without full leadership support and commitment.  If you’ve ever climbed out on a limb for your group, and had it sawed off after you attempted to change something, you’ve experienced the full force of what lack of support can do.  It’s demoralizing and puts a real damper on future forays into uncharted territory.  Solution — Make sure executive management is onboard and vocal about any new trials.

Yes, nonprofits could do more to seek and use best practices.  But, we’re not alone.  Just a quick internet search will show you that our for-profit cousins struggle with it as well.