Benchmarking Basics

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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:

Best practice

  • 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)

Promising Practice

  • 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

Innovative Practice

  • 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
Click to open interactivity Test your understanding of best, promising, and innovative practices.

Test your understanding of best, promising, and innovative practices.

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