It is easy to find information implying “best practices” for nonprofits, along with the gravitas associated with the term, evidence-based program design. The implication is that success is assured whenever tried and true organizational behavior is repeated. If such practices are truly “best,” why do they have to be promoted? If they really are “best” why wouldn’t they be employed everywhere? Perhaps such facile reference to ostensibly rigorous approaches reflects the need for nonprofits to somehow convey the seriousness of our intent and our work in a sector easily visualized as wonderfully imprecise.
Applied to principles of nonprofit governance, “best practices” make sense insofar as they represent standards that can be useful across many organizations. Every nonprofit, for example, will be served well by reasonable by-laws and a vital mission statement against which to measure its program activities, and ultimately its success.
Applied to program delivery, however, the implication is that one program fits all communities or all constituents, and that is purest nonsense. My experience is that credible nonprofits embraced by vibrant communities honor the value of wondrous idiosyncrasies. We could say they are of the community, in effect, that no two communities are the same, and that there accordingly are scores of best practices to the point of rendering the generic term impotent.
As for values that should undergird any version of what a community might come to own as its own best practices, Robert Matthews Johnson writes in his fine book, The First Charity,
“There has been much talk about community in the past 25 years. There has even been, supposedly, a neighborhood movement. But darn few neighborhood people have been involved. Too much of the tone has been professional, entrepreneurial people speaking for others. Too many so-called community organizations have become too far removed from the issues that affect everyday life in communities.”
My experience working with people participating in a foundation-funded ten-year community-building initiative confirms what Johnson contends. This effort was marked by working to build communities from the inside out, depending on the previously undervalued and underused resilience and wisdom of its residents. The working assumption or theory of change for this endeavor was that no one knows more about the challenges facing those for whom current socioeconomic arrangements are not working well than the ones being challenged.
We transposed these values to the fundamental business of pursuing resources to support such community building. This led to an expansive, inclusive method of developing funding proposals while at the same time reinforcing team work and a focus on community development. The resultant products served two purposes. They, first and foremost, represented the written version of a labor intensive planning process. And, sometimes those plans were the essence of proposals sent off to secure grants to underwrite the costs of taking action in the community. This duality should not be lost to us, and it represents what I intended with the sub title for my book, The Inside-Out Strategy for Developing Your Nonprofit's Resources.