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The Myth of “Best” Practices

“Best practices” sound good. Safe. Strategic. Wise. Indeed: they sound “best.”

But, I have mixed feelings about this ubiquitous term. After all, “best practices” are not magic. They are not one-size-fits-all. Often, they are a safe path that limits innovation and flexibility.

Sometimes we use “best practices” as an excuse to remain in a rut. We continue doing what’s “tried and true” rather than following our instincts and trying something that’s unique and might be right for our nonprofit.

Recently, I heard someone suggest that we look for “better practices”— which is a term that I now prefer. This suggests that there is evidence of their efficacy, but they shouldn’t be seen as the ultimate “be all and end all.” It keeps our mind open to new approaches.

“Better practices” are especially relevant for start-ups and younger organizations. After all, some best practices are beyond their reach, as they simply don’t have the staff, capacity, systems, or experience to implement them.

It reminds me of a powerful quote in Bono’s recent memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say U2 began to write our own songs because we couldn’t play other people’s. Baby steps for a baby band.” [emphasis added]

Did you catch that?

U2 could not cover other songs because their musical skills were still developing. They had to write songs for their skill level. Younger organizations should do the same: be aware of and learn from best practices, but do what’s in your skill set. Take baby steps if you’re a baby organization.

Earlier in my career, I too often relied on best practices out of fear — because I didn’t trust myself. I followed the crowd because they seemed to know what worked. But, as I spent more time fundraising for nonprofits, I realized it’s both art and science.

Learn from me (and Bono): use the science, but apply it artfully to your own nonprofit. Play your own song.

Guitar practice photo by Mariana Hernández Castro on Pexels.

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