I hear many people talk about their discomfort with the term ‘best practice’. In the non-profit world that discomfort is the same as the dislike organizations have when funders tell them what’s right for them. The same discomfort that emerges when government and the private sector tell us we need to apply ‘business practices’ to our work. And it’s the same discomfort any staff member of an under-resourced, over-worked non-profit feels when someone (especially a Board member) says “you should…”

Let’s break it down, though, because ultimately there is nothing wrong with considering the best practices non-profit’s could apply to be their best, but calling something a ‘best practice’ doesn’t make it so. In fact, the term is about evidentiary proof that something works well in a given context. The concept comes from the health sector and means a theory of treatment that has been applied multiple times and worked, it has been applied so often that it is unquestionably the best approach to the health diagnosis being addressed.

If something hasn’t been tested enough, but seems to be a good approach, it is a promising practice. If it is interesting and new, it is an emerging practice.

And what of the word ‘practice’? In the world of non-profit management, we are talking about a way of doing something. It isn’t, for example, a practice to pay your employees, it’s the law. One might say it is ‘best practice’ to pay your employees well, but is it? Has that been proven through repetitive application to be an important aspect of a non-profit organization’s success?

No. Not only are there a limited number of organizations in BC that pay ‘well’ and therefore there aren’t enough test subjects, but we haven’t even defined what a successful non-profit in this province looks like. And don’t get me started on what being paid ‘well’ might even mean.

So best practices aren’t about things that are required by law, or about things that everyone thinks are a good idea. Best practices are about the practical systems and processes that have shown to be helpful in keeping an organization running smoothly. There hasn’t been enough research on BC’s 20,000 plus non-profit organizations to be able to be scientific about best practices (though an excellent American resource on the subject is the book The Forces for Good), but there are things an organization can do that will, at minimum, allow everyone involved to focus on the mission and not on internal chaos.

Something else people object to is in the simplicity of the language – what in women’s-studies-speak is called essentializing.  For example, don’t let anyone tell you ‘strategic planning is a best practice’ – it is only a best practice if you do it right. It needs to be linked to behaviour. Does your organization plan things? Does it stop to think about itself once in a while? Does it consider its success once in a while and think about how to get more success? That is what makes strategic planning a best practice, when it is an actual process engaged in seriously and integrated in the organization. (see my fun video on ’10 ways to use a strategic plan’ )

In other words, I am going to continue to use ‘best practices’ to describe anything that, if an organization is doing this in a meaningful and integrated way, the organization is probably active, dynamic, healthy and doing exactly what it exists to do. They are things that are based on my experience and not rigorous research. If someone wants to pay me to prove these things are true by an extensive multi-year study of the sector, bring it on. For now, I will rely on my experience.

In my experience the top ten best practices in non-profit management are:

1.  Be a service provider to those needing your organization AND an advocate for your issue, because you can’t be good at either by focusing only on one role. No matter what you think charity law or lobbying rules or your conservative Board members say, you are allowed to do both.

2. Produce and share monthly financial statements with budget to actuals that Board and Staff all see and understand.

3. Involve staff members in the hiring of Executive Directors. The Board will never get it right, nor will a head hunting company, without staff engagement.

4. Conduct annual performance reviews of all staff, including ED’s, that allow for an exchange about what’s working and not working.

5. Conduct Board orientation that includes meeting staff, touring programs and understanding roles and responsibilities (including how to read financial statements).

6. Engage in annual planning processes that lead into and follow multi-year strategic planning.

7. Conduct an annual budget development process that includes wage and salary increases, or other recognition of staff, and includes Board support and development costs.

8. Be honest with funders, engage them in conversations about your needs, and always ask why you didn’t get a particular grant. (but don’t whine – they have the right to decide where their money goes.)

9. Get professional help when you need it, but be the boss of that professional (ie: lawyers, consultants, evaluators etc.) when you do.

10. Be kind to everyone involved. Kindness includes firm decision-making, letting go of people who aren’t working out, and sticking to an agenda.

These are my best practices. The are not promising practices. They are not emerging practices. They are a bit heavy on the staff engagement, but that’s because the wrong Executive Director or unhappy staff will do more to damage your organization and its goals then anything else – even lack of funding or an oppositional government.

These 10 things will make your organization great and let you get on with the real ‘business’ of a non-profit – helping people, making art, saving the forests, advocating for animals, building affordable and safe housing etc. There may be emerging practices in the area of social entrepreneurship, but they have not been tested enough to supplant the ten I believe organizations should aspire to achieve.

In defense of ‘best practice’ – Top ten things a non-profit can do to succeed