Organizational Leadership

What Are Best Practices

The Office of Community Services has created this guide to better inform grantees, Head Start program staff, and other family service organizations about the definition, necessity, and role of best practices in the nonprofit sector. Although best practices were first used extensively in business, nonprofits continue to recognize the need to adopt best practice methodologies to effectively achieve an organization’s mission, and meet its goals.

The process of identifying and incorporating best practices was first utilized extensively in the business sector in areas such as manufacturing operations, information technology and health care management. Over the past decade, increasing efforts have been made to encourage the adoption of best practice methodologies within the nonprofit sector. While some progress has been made, the broad acceptance of best practices as a key management tool for the nonprofit sector has only happened in the last few years.

As awareness of the issue of best practices has grown, the need for the development of a standardized skill set in identifying, validating and promoting best practices has surfaced. To date, this skill set has resided predominantly in research-based institutions such as universities and policy research institutes. More recently, work has begun to define and develop methodologies more broadly used by operating nonprofits and nonprofit intermediaries. Since these practitioner organizations generally focus on providing direct program services, or on capacity building activities, they often do not have access to the research skills or other resources used by research institutions to identify best practices. However, nonprofits have a definitive need for tools that are accessible and useful in addressing the issues of identifying and promoting best practices.

It is also important to note that there currently is no single standardized definition for what constitutes a best practice within the nonprofit sector. A review of the literature on best practices in the nonprofit sector clearly indicates that different organizations use different criteria for identifying a best practice. This is also true across sectors—different definitions are used within the business world and the healthcare industry, for example.

In addition to a variety of definitions, there is also limited agreement on the terms used to refer to a best practice. Often, the terms, "best practice" and "effective practice" are used interchangeably to refer to the same set of criteria. And some organizations identify the broad category of best or effective practices and then differentiate levels of practices within the broader definition.

In spite of these broad variations in definitions and terminology, a preliminary review of practitioner literature as it relates to the nonprofit sector does suggest that there is some common use of and criteria for identifying best practices. For example, a general working definition used by the Department of Health and Human Services in referring to a promising practice is:

"A 'promising model' is defined as one with at least preliminary evidence of effectiveness in small-scale interventions or for which there is potential for generating data that will be useful for making decisions about taking the intervention to scale and generalizing the results to diverse populations and settings."

For the purposes of this guidebook, it is useful to distinguish between three different types of practices: research validated best practices, field tested best practices and promising practices.

  • Research Validated Best Practice
    A program, activity or strategy that has the highest degree of proven effectiveness supported by objective and comprehensive research and evaluation.
  • Field Tested Best Practice
    A program, activity or strategy that has been shown to work effectively and produce successful outcomes and is supported to some degree by subjective and objective data sources.
  • Promising Practice
    A program, activity or strategy that has worked within one organization and shows promise during its early stages for becoming a best practice with long term sustainable impact. A promising practice must have some objective basis for claiming effectiveness and must have the potential for replication among other organizations.

The following chart provides a comparison of the criteria characterizing each type of practice:

Criteria for Differentiating Types of Practices

Research Validated Best Practice
  • Proven effectiveness in addressing a common problem.
  • Proven effectiveness in more than one organization and in more than one context.
  • Replicability 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).
Field Tested Best Practice
  • Effectiveness in addressing a common problem.
  • Effectiveness in more than one organization and in more than one context.
  • Replicability on a limited scale.
  • Supporting data from comparison to objective benchmarks with positive results.
  • Supporting data from an internal assessment or external evaluation.
Promising Practice
  • Suggested effectiveness in addressing a common problem.
  • Successful use in one organization and context.
  • Potential for replicability.
  • Limited supporting data from comparison to objective benchmarks with positive results.
  • Limited supporting data from internal assessment.

Differentiating between research validated and field tested best practices acknowledges that much of the work with practitioners to identify best practices does not, and realistically cannot, pass the high standard of research due to resource limitations in staff time and organizational finances.

As a result, we will focus on field tested best practices with the intention that the knowledge and tools provided here will enable intermediaries (Partners, Faith-Based and community organizations) and FBCOs to move toward a higher degree of programmatic and organizational excellence through the identification and incorporation of field tested best practices. In order to meet this goal, the guidebook draws on the theory provided by the academic community for a sound approach and methodology, but leans toward the practitioner in terms of implementation.

For the purposes of this guidebook, a practice qualifies as a best practice when it meets the following criteria:

  • Addresses a common problem experienced by a broad spectrum of organizations.
  • Works effectively to address the problem in more than one organizational setting and more than one context.
  • Has shown replicability at least on a limited scale.
  • Compares positively to data gathered from other organizations and research studies of other practices addressing the same problem.
  • Shows supporting data from internal assessments or external evaluations.