Honest Practice: How the Public Sector Can Look at Itself (New article in Resources)

Best Practice Stinks

We provide here a detailed summary of the article “Honest Practice: How the Public Sector Can Look at Itself” by Howie Fisher with illustrations and design by Billy Brown. Download the full pdf from attachments.

In this article the Transmission Project contests the convention of collecting “best practices” and offers in its place a narrative approach to assessing nonprofit organizations’ capacity building efforts. The Transmission Project calls this approach Honest Practice.

So-called best practices claim to encapsulate successful organizations’ hard-earned knowledge and experience in the form of simple, ready-to-use solutions. Practices are canonized with little regard for what led to success. Research in the field illustrates that what “best practices” obscure is the hard work it takes to get a practice to function correctly in a new environment. The Transmission Project’s observations as capacity-building practitioner attest to the potential pitfalls of blindly adopting so-called best practices.

Although multiple accounts corroborate the risks associated with “best practices,” they remain popular among organizations – primarily as a way to appeal to funders in terms they can grasp. The diversity of nonprofit sector work complicates attempts to establish reliable ways of measuring success while making meaningful comparisons across the field. With the endorsement of funders, “best practices” become a way to discriminate superficially between organizations that do good work and organizations that don’t work.

We explore the depth of the problem. When organizations chase so-called best practices, they under-invest in other forms of overhead. These include evaluation and tracking systems that, when neglected, leave organizations unable to define and measure success on their own terms. The cyclical nature of the problem makes it difficult to address head-on. Without proper infrastructure to measure and understand their work, organizations lose track of their needs and cannot challenge the prescribed standards of excellence.

The fundamental importance of evaluation having been established, the evaluator or researcher emerges as an influential force in representing organizations’ work to funders and the rest of the field. The author suggests that the real challenge is insisting upon a more narrative, process-centered approach to discussing capacity building work as opposed to a myopic focus on success in terms of end results.

The article offers examples of the kinds of qualitative questions writers and researchers can ask. What follows is an analysis of the Transmission Project’s own attempts to evaluate its work without the full support of its funders to do so.

We conclude that while researchers can influence the field by keeping context intact when discussing organizations’ work, evaluation entails not only collecting information, but also processing and integrating it into an organization’s operations. As opposed to relying on “best practices” as markers of success, funders need to provide organizations with the resources to invest in tracking systems to build their capacity to define success, measure it, and articulate what they need to perform better.

Honest Practice - How the Public Sector Can Look at Itself.pdf2.69 MB


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Transmission Project