Welcome to the e-learning lesson on identifying and promoting effective practices.
The process of systematically improving performance by identifying, understanding, and adapting successful practices is often referred to as benchmarking. Benchmarking was first utilized extensively in the business sector in areas like manufacturing and information technology. More recently, increasing efforts have been made to encourage the adoption of effective practice methodologies in the nonprofit sector. This lesson aims to answer common questions about the identification and promotion of effective practices and provide nonprofit organizations with detailed processes and methodologies to assist them in this process. By the end of this lesson, you'll be able to: differentiate between the three types of effective practices — best, promising, and innovative; identify and validate new and existing effective practices; and promote effective practices.
Learn the "benchmarking basics."
This e-learning will help organizations answer these key questions:
- Why are effective practices important?
- What are the differences between best practices, promising practices, and innovative practices?
- How do you identify existing practices?
- How do you identify and validate new practices?
- What are some useful tools for teaching others to identify and incorporate these practices?
Effective practices drive organizational improvement.
Benchmarking is an invaluable process that can inform program design and development and drive organizational improvement. The identification, implementation, and promotion of effective practices can help your organization to remain on the leading edge of nonprofit services. At the conclusion of this lesson you will be able to:
- Understand the three types of effective practices — best, promising, and innovative
- Identify existing best, promising, and innovative practices
- Identify and validate effective practices
- Promote effective practices
CHAPTER 1: Benchmarking Basics
A practice can refer to an activity, strategy, methodology, system, process, technique, tactic, or approach. For instance, a youth-serving mentoring organization may discover that utilizing online social networking sites to recruit mentors or electing youth ambassadors to sit on the organization's board of directors are both effective practices. Effective practices can provide nonprofit organizations with significant, long-term benefits including: improved quality and increased quantity of services offered to clients; cost savings due to increased productivity and efficiency; increased financial support from funders interested in supporting evidence-based programs and strategies, and improved staff performance. As you'll learn throughout this e-learning, there are three different types of effective practices: best practices, promising practices, and innovative practices. Whether an effective practice is classified as best, promising, or innovative will depend on a number of factors.
Effective practices can be classified as best, promising, or innovative.
While definitions and standards around what constitutes an effective practice vary throughout the nonprofit sector, the following definitions provide a point of reference for the remainder of this lesson:
- Effective practice — a general term used to refer to best, promising, and innovative practices as a whole. This term may also refer to a practice that has yet to be classified as best, promising, or innovative through a validation process.
- Best practice — a method or technique that has been proven to help organizations reach high levels of efficiency or effectiveness and produce successful outcomes. Best practices are evidence-based and proven effective through objective and comprehensive research and evaluation.
- Promising practice — a method or technique that has been shown to work effectively and produce successful outcomes. Promising practices are supported, to some degree, by subjective data (e.g., interviews and anecdotal reports from the individuals implementing the practice) and objective data (e.g., feedback from subject matter experts and the results of external audits). However, promising practices are not validated through the same rigorous research and evaluation as best practices.
- Innovative practice — a method, technique, or activity that has worked within one organization and shows promise during its early stages for becoming a promising or best practice with long-term, sustainable impact. Innovative practices must have some objective basis for claiming effectiveness and must have the potential for replication among other organizations.
Classify the practice by reviewing its track record for success.
Effective practices maintain a sliding scale of criteria based on the practice's documented effectiveness and ability to be replicated. As a general rule, best practices meet the most stringent criteria, while more evidence and documentation is needed to verify the effectiveness of innovative practices.
Consider the list of criteria below:
- Proven effectiveness in addressing a common problem
- Proven effectiveness in more than one organization and in more than one context
- Replication on a broad scale
- Conclusive data from comparison to objective benchmarks with positive results
- Conclusive data from a comprehensive and objective evaluation by an external, qualified source (most often an academic institution or individual with the appropriate academic credentials)
- Effectiveness in addressing a common problem
- Effectiveness in more than one organization and in more than one context
- Replication on a limited scale
- Supporting data from comparison to objective benchmarks with positive results
- Supporting data from an internal assessment or external evaluation
- Suggested effectiveness in addressing a common problem
- Successful use in one organization and context
- Potential for replication
- Limited supporting data from comparison to objective benchmarks, with positive results
- Limited supporting data from internal assessment
CHAPTER 2: Identifying Areas of Need
Performance improvement lies at the heart of all benchmarking studies. Because of this, your organization's needs should drive the process of identifying effective practices. When brainstorming areas in which to identify effective practices, consider both current and anticipated areas of need. Where is your organization weakest? What events do you anticipate affecting your organization in the coming months and years? How do you think the cultural climate in your geographical area will impact your ability to provide needed services to your clients? The need areas you identify through these brainstorming activities will fall into one of two categories: programmatic needs and organizational needs. Once you identify these areas of need, you will be ready to move onto the next step of the benchmarking process: identifying effective practices.
Programmatic needs are client-facing.
Programmatic needs address the methods or activities that your organization uses in providing services to your clients. Programmatic needs can include, but are not limited to:
- Program design
- Work plans
- Project management
- Information or reporting systems
- Community organizing
- Volunteer recruitment
- Context-specific processes (i.e., practices that apply to organizations that serve certain populations or address a specific set of needs)
Conducting regular needs assessments within your community or client base can be a vital step in the larger capacity building process and the identification of programmatic areas in need of improvement.
Organizational needs are internal.
Organizational needs address the methods or activities that, when implemented, impact your organization's ability to implement and manage programs. Organizational needs may include some of the following topics:
- Board development
- Human resources management
- Financial management
- Grant acquisition
- Grant management
- Strategic planning
- Partnerships and collaborations
- Outcomes and quality improvement
- Informational technology management
Identifying organizational needs requires a proactive approach. Survey program leadership and stakeholders to identify potential strategic needs and survey all staff to identify what processes and systems would benefit from improvement.
CHAPTER 3: Identifying Effective Practices
After you have identified areas of need for your clients and community, you will begin to unearth potential practices to address these need areas. This is accomplished in one of two ways: by identifying existing practices that have already been validated to meet the needs of your clients and community; or by identifying new practices that meet the needs of your clients and community. When identifying potential practices, consider the following questions: What problem or challenge does the practice address? In what contexts has the practice been successful? For how long has the practice been in implementation? What outcomes or impacts has the practice helped to achieve?
Utilize peer networks and online resources to identify existing practices.
Network with other nonprofit organizations, coalitions, and academic institutions to determine the practices they have identified as successful. Suggested organizations and networks in which to identify effective practices include:
- National and local foundations
- Regional associations of grantmakers
- State and Federal grant programs
- Universities and academia
- National and local think tanks and research institutes
- United Ways
- Other corporate giving programs
- National policymaker associations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors or the National Governor's Association
- Faith-based networks such as the Christian Community Development Association or the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability
- State and national nonprofit associations
You can also search for existing practices by utilizing searchable web-based databases such as those maintained by the University of Nevada at Reno's Center for the Application of Substance Abuse Technologies and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.
Identify new practices through observation and in-depth interviews.
For those nonprofits that need or want to identify new practices, the primary place to find these effective practices will be within your own organization or among peer networks of nonprofit organizations that serve a similar purpose and population. A nonprofit may self-identify a potential practice as an effective way to meet client or organizational needs, or your organization may observe an activity or method in practice that you believe will help to close the gap in a need area.
Large nonprofit organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys and Girls Clubs have hundreds of thousands of program sites throughout the country to draw from and can more easily identify effective practices that meet common needs and are easily transferable from one site to another. However, smaller nonprofit organizations, due to their size, will likely have to turn to peer organizations to identify and observe "what works" in meeting specific need areas.
Document the practice through a programmatic/organizational review.
One of the best methodologies for documenting an effective practice is to conduct either a programmatic or an organizational review of the practice. Which type of review you'll conduct depends on whether the potential practice is programmatic or organizational in nature. While different individuals with varying skill sets are involved in each type of review, the process is largely the same for both.
The programmatic or organizational review draws predominantly on subjective data sources and is intended to:
- Identify the critical elements that are inherent to the practice.
- Capture procedural information supporting each critical element.
- Identify the tools, processes, and systems that support the practice.
Download the sample organizational/programmatic review process and explore helpful hints for each step of the process by clicking on the interactivity on the right.
CHAPTER 4: Validate and Classify Practices
A thorough validation process involves the review of both subjective and objective data points. There are two methods of assessment that you can use to verify and classify practices — a comparative review or a peer review. In identifying which method or combination of methods may be the best fit for your organization, you may want to conduct some preliminary research to determine what measures are available or what standards or guidelines exist to help qualify the practice. Regardless as to which review process you choose, at the end of this step, you will have classified your finding as a best, promising, or innovative practice.
Draw on both subjective and objective data to validate practices.
To get a holistic view of the practice's effectiveness, you'll want to draw on a combination of subjective and objective data. Subjective data is often more self-reported or qualitative in nature. Sources for obtaining subjective data can include internal reviews, assessments, and feedback from management and staff or customers/beneficiaries. Objective data, on the other hand, is gathered from both internal and external sources that can provide objective bases for comparing the success of the practice through like-kind analysis. Sources for obtaining objective data can include subject matter experts, external auditors, consultants, research evidence, and independent evaluations.
Validate results through a comparative review.
A comparative review draws primarily on objective data sources to compare the practices unearthed in the programmatic/organizational review with similar practices of other organizations. A comparative review validates the results of the programmatic or organizational review through comparison to data gathered from sources external to the organization. Potential sources for comparative data include:
- National, regional, or local benchmark data
- Case studies of organizational performance
- Comparative/competitive market analysis
- Academic research
Build organizational ownership through peer reviews.
A peer review draws on the judgment of peers and other practitioner organizations to analyze and affirm the findings of the programmatic/organizational review of the practice. This is accomplished through the presentation of documented review findings to a number of peers to determine if the findings "hold up" and meet with the general consensus of the practitioner community. The goal is to determine if there is agreement among practitioners that the practice qualifies as either a best or promising practice.
The peer review is a critical step in the assessment process in terms of building organizational ownership for the practice, as a practice that has received consensus among a nonprofit community of peers is far more likely to be embraced and incorporated into organizational operations.
Maintain realistic expectations, but strive for improvement.
Within the nonprofit sector, practices are often classified as promising or innovative due to the limited availability of evaluation data and quantifiable results. However, nonprofit organizations should consistently evaluate the effectiveness of practices implemented and reevaluate their classification. When validating a practice, consider what data points and indicators will prove that the practice is successful and effective. Track these data points and strive to identify evidence-based practices that draw on concrete performance indicators.
For organizations that want to try to validate a practice with the rigor usually reserved for corporate or academic settings, a formal evaluation or research component is the next step. A formal evaluation, often conducted by an academic institution or private consultant, is essential to make the claim that a practice is evidence-based and validated through research. For many nonprofit organizations, formal evaluations to validate practices are not feasible, as the process requires extensive time and resources. However, large nonprofits that are striving to set the benchmark and remain on the cutting edge in their service area may find that a formal evaluation of practices is worth the investment.
CHAPTER 5: Promote and Implement Effective Practices
The benchmarking process doesn't simply end after practices have been identified, validated, and classified. Remember that process improvement lies at the heart of the benchmarking process. Because of this, organizations should be prepared to devote time and effort to the promotion and implementation of the effective practices unearthed through the benchmarking process. There is a critical difference between communicating about effective practices and actually ensuring that your organization is prepared to incorporate the practice into its processes and structures. Consider ways in which you will promote the practice with both internal staff and with peer organizations.
Internal promotion of practices prepares staff for implementation.
Internal promotion is essential to the successful implementation of an effective practice. How you promote the practice and prepare your staff for implementation will depend on the size and culture of your organization as well as the complexity of the practice being introduced. Sensitivity to your organization's needs and concerns are essential to the successful internal promotion of effective practices.
Peer-to-peer learning promotes collaboration among nonprofits.
Peer-to-peer learning is generally a low-cost and low-effort way to share effective practices that yield high value within the nonprofit community. By creating a “clearinghouse” for effective practices, nonprofit organizations can function as a facilitator or organizer as well as a source of support for collaborations that promote learning and sharing among peers.
Nonprofit organizations can promote peer-to-peer learning in a number of ways, including:
- Searchable databases—One way to enable peer-to-peer learning is to create an online searchable database of practices where nonprofits can virtually share effective practices with their peers. To host an effective online database, ensure that posted practices meet a minimum standard of criteria; that practices maintain a recognized validation process; and that the database is searchable by sector, area of programmatic activity, and organizational operations.
- List serves—A list serve is an e-mail list that allows members to send messages to one another. A public list serve allows anyone on the public list to initiate communication with someone else. You can host a list serve that enables nonprofits to communicate with one another regarding effective practices and their adaptation, replication, and implementation.
- Face-to-face peer learning—There are many ways for nonprofits to facilitate face-to-face learning events within their communities. An organization might consider hosting peer learning groups where participants share ideas and experiences with best or promising practices, or to develop a team made up of members from nonprofit organizational representatives who have a vested interest in designing creative ways for sharing effective practices.
Verify the practice's effectiveness through observation and evaluation.
After formally promoting and implementing the practice, you should prepare to evaluate your organization's success in implementing the new process or activity. Think back to the data points and indicators that you originally used to classify the practice. How have these data points or indicators changed since implementing the practice? What evidence have you observed that points to the practice's success? The timeframe for evaluating the practice's effectiveness will depend on the time needed to incorporate the best practice and duration of time that needs to pass before results can be observed.
In order to remain competitive and consistently improve the quality and effectiveness of the services provided to their clients, nonprofit organizations must make a concerted effort to continually identify, implement, and promote effective practices. After review of this lesson, you should now be able to: differentiate between the three different types of effective practices— best, promising, and innovative; identify and validate existing and new practices, and promote these effective practices in order to improve organizational performance. Thank you for taking the time to learn about identifying and promoting effective practices.
Benchmarking helps nonprofits to reach their mission.
When identified and successfully implemented, effective practices can help nonprofit organizations to improve the quality and quantity of services they provide to their clients; increase productivity and efficiency; replace poor processes and systems with evidence-based strategies and practices; and increase overall performance from management and staff.
Learn more about benchmarking at the links below.
- Center for What Works
The Center for What Works is a nonprofit organization that aims to help social service organizations enhance their performance measurement processes, benchmark results, and strive for improved effectiveness. Members of the Center can access a number of resources, including e-learning lessons, toolkits, recorded webcasts, and case studies.
- Nonprofit Good Practice Guide
This searchable online database, maintained by the Nonprofit Leadership Institute at Grand Valley State University's Johnson Center for Philanthropy, was created in 2002 to capture, organize, disseminate, and promote knowledge-based decisions in the nonprofit sector.
- Promising and Effective Practices Network
As part of the National Youth Employment Coalition, PEPNet is one of the country's premier resources on what works in youth development and employment. The PEPNet website offers an online index to effective practices featuring more than 500 specific practices identified from PEPNet awardees.
- Promising Practices Network
Operated by the RAND Corporation, PPN offers summaries of programs and practices that work to improve the lives of children, families, and communities.