Subject: Community Resources & Cultural Assets, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Leadership, Nonprofit Management
Presented in: 2011
Panelists navigated the “delicate tightrope” of defining and sharing best practices in a session that suggested dozens of resources for non-profit organizations, while stressing the need for flexibility in trying to apply experience from other groups.
“Best practices are fluid,” said Arthur Coddington. “They’re the result of our collective wisdom about the best way to go about things,” but “they’re not the final answer. They’re always evolving.” Since an understanding of what works changes from moment to moment, city to city, and situation to situation, “we wanted to convey that there’s no wrong answer to what a best practice is, and [encourage you] to add your own wisdom to the equation.”
Peggy Duvette said there has been some controversy about how organizations share solutions, who decides what constitutes a best practice, and whether a success story can serve as a wider solution if it is only applicable in one location. “It’s very tough, depending on the field you’re looking into.”
Coddington said an idea can only become a best practice if it’s made available for communities to embrace. “If you’re keeping it as a trade secret, it’s probably not going to be a best practice, because best practices thrive through community input and sharing,” he said. “It can’t be the best unless it has the experience of the whole community. So if you’re hoarding, not participating, your systems are probably not going to be best practices, because other peoples’ solutions haven’t been added to yours.”
Leo Romero presented a list of more than 75 resources he had gathered through a process of community outreach on best practices, acknowledging more than a dozen contributors as co-authors of his talk.
He cited one contributor’s observation that “local people are quite capable of doing stuff, if only those who have power they shouldn’t have would get out of the way.” In that light, perpetuating discussion about best practices can encourage over-bureaucratization, so it might be more useful to learn from organizations’ worst practices. Later in the session, participants said funding arrangements might make it hard for organizations to acknowledge projects that fall short of their objectives.
Romero described his organization’s work in West Oakland, using a solutions salon to bring different neighborhood groups together around common goals.
“There are so many great organizations, so many great people working in West Oakland but, surprisingly, they’re not working very closely together.” Through a sequence of two community meetings, about 100 participants came up with several dozen possible initiatives to improve the community, then honed the list down to two top priorities.
“You employed a bunch of best practices,” Coddington told Romero. Organizers built on a dialogue model that had worked elsewhere, asked people for their ideas through a process that was fun and engaging, avoided making or imposing assumptions about the community, and asked for help when they needed it.
Duvette said it was significant that Romero and his colleagues “made the ask,” noting that she gets great feedback when she sends out questions via social media. A participant described a LinkedIn group for civic engagement and dialogue practitioners that has grown into a useful resource for its several hundred members.
Another participant noted that cross-community enterprises seem to last longer when new voices are added to the conversation. “If we keep the same people at the table, we die.” But she said it can be difficult for neighborhood groups to strike the right balance between listening and getting things done.
“In this process of seeking expertise from those who are living the experience, where do you draw that line between learning and collective action?” she asked. “You can become paralyzed with gathering information and never move. But on the other hand, you can hear two stories and decide that’s the direction you’re going,” when a more complete base of evidence might change what the group wants to do.
Coddington said the other option is to do the research and critical evaluation while a project is under way. “We want to have the data and backup to justify what we’re doing,” he said, but “you could actually be out there making things happen and telling the story.” Participants discussed the importance of research and evaluation, with one group member noting that most of the resources on Romero’s list “were more community sharing than research-based.”
Romero agreed on the need to learn from past experience and identified Community Toolbox as a resource that puts a lot of emphasis on evaluation and evidence.
For many communities, Coddington said, “one of the weak areas that constantly comes up is that evaluative component, because those us who want to make change in our communities don’t necessarily want to go back and do the paperwork” to systematize an idea or a program. “There’s interest in cultivating that reflection in a systematic way, but it’s a blind spot for many of us.”
Duvette replied that “anyone can share a solution,” but an organization that wants to adopt an idea from elsewhere will have to know how it was applied and whether it can be repeated and scaled. A participant added that while non-profits don’t necessarily need full-scale, evidence-based research to document their work, “you have to show some sort of results if you want funding.”
Coddington pointed to LikeMinded as the Craigslist Foundation’s attempt at a platform for sharing community innovations and successes. He said the objective is to “help these stories travel better to other audiences, and help those best practices be applied in real life sooner and more widely.” Rather than setting up LikeMinded as yet another social network, the Foundation decided to avoid duplication and connect the system with all the networks that already exist. Duvette said the approach made it easier for organizations to exchange their data back and forth.
“Think of it as a warehouse, then have as many storefronts as possible, so wherever people go on the web they can find the solution.”
Conference reporting provided by Conference Publisher Inc.