Sunday, July 10, 2011

Using Worst Practices

My Google Reader is out of control. It has way too many subscriptions. I also have this obsessive-compulsive thing where I can't let something unread go unread, so I end up consuming a lot of literature (if blogs can be considered literature) on nonprofits and social change.

One thing that bugs me about the resources out there is this obsession with "best practices." Advice-giving blog posts, case studies, and reports usually focus on what makes a good organization good, or what an organization has done to be more effective at something than others. Seemingly helpful for those seeking advice, this deluge of best practices and "overarching themes" makes my eyes glaze over.

Granted, not everyone reads blogs (slash wastes time with blogs) as much as I do. I'm also not running an organization or making major decisions at an organization, nor am I starting my own organization. So all this advice might be taken to heart elsewhere. I think, though, that most of the advice given is too generalized to do much good to "influence the field," as it were. People recommend things (usually through over-used metaphors) like "engage with stakeholders," "think for impact," and (my personal favorite) "have an A-plus team." Does anyone think having a C or B team is any good? Does anyone think that ignoring stakeholders is the way to go?

Social Edge recently hosted a discussion on "Access to Information" for social entrepreneurs, and one of the questions asked was:
Do social entrepreneurs even need resources? Is part of starting a social enterprise figuring it out from scratch? Or is there a way to share resources among entrepreneurs, who are do-it-yourselfers?
My first reaction to this was no, they don't. Social innovation is all about getting out there and mixing stuff up for yourself, going down the path least traveled, creating audacious goals, winning the future, etc etc. Using someone's previous path as a guide might cause some to miss out on important advancements.

But, I went on to think, without shared resources, a lot of people unknowingly will repeat the same mistakes. In the interest in efficiency, the knowledge of these mistakes should be spread far and wide as a deterrent for others. Sharing knowledge and common practices to reduce the repetition of mistakes is a good thing.

The best way to do this, I think, is to not focus on "best practices," but instead focus on "worst practices." Setting out a framework of things that have worked in the past is all well and good, but social change and social innovation needs to be adaptive. One size won't always fit all. Putting the failures out on the table makes it easier to see what went wrong and what to avoid when trying something similar. It is easy to hear a general best practice and think, "Oh yes, I do have an A-plus team," even if you don't. Saying "Oh no, I'd never make that mistake" is a lot harder.

One recent article that I think uses the idea of "worst practices" well is "Letting Go" (pdf), by Kristi Kimball & Malka Kopell of the Hewlett Foundation. The article is about the tendency for funders to be overly-controlling of social initiatives, and why loosening that grip will help grantees and foundations alike. They use several examples of when the Hewlett Foundation didn't do this, and the problems that ensued.

Another publication that I think employs "worst practices" well (to be a little self-promotional) is VPP's Leap of Reason, written by VPP Chairman Mario Morino. Morino uses several examples from his own career to show how not paying attention to an organization's impact can be pretty disastrous.

Generalizations of best practices usually are platitudes that can be easily brushed aside or incorporated into an organization on a surface level without much change. Worst practices are more specific and serve as a warning sign to others journeying down the road of social innovation. Sharing these amongst ourselves will make that trip a lot more efficient and better for all.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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