Ponderances of Steve

December 2, 2009

25 Best Practices for Nonprofits

Filed under: Coaching,gtd — Steve LeBlanc @ 4:41 pm

A best practice is a process thought to be more productive, efficient and sustainable than other methods, as tested over time. Generally there are different best practices in different industries, but there may be similar ones used in certain disciplines, such as accounting or customer service. This paper is neither exhaustive nor a simple outline of quick tips. It falls somewhere in between, offering enough detail to learn something, while offering enough points to make it a useful reference document. It is something to be reviewed and studied. You might even use it as a worksheet and review a point or section each week, asking others in your group to evaluate how your organization is doing in that area. As always, you will want to ask regularly, “What can we do to improve?”

The Why

The purpose of using industry best practices is to avoid the need to reinvent the wheel. Without best practices, you are destined to bumble through all the usual mistakes and acquire numerous procedures based upon nothing more than, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” In fact, once any system is set up, we begin to defend that system, even to the point of rewriting the history of why we do it that way. When looking to improve a system, remember that most procedures developed over time, through a series of random events and choices. The following story illustrates how policies typically get made.

The Story

For three generations, the Anderson women have cut off the end of the Christmas ham before putting it in the pot to cook. Until recently, no one thought to ask why. But this year Mary’s husband, Jim, did ask. Mary answered, “Well, I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way. Let me call my mother.”

Mary’s mother also said, “Well, I don’t know. We’ve just always done it that way. Why don’t you call your grandmother.”

Grandma was tickled by the question and just laughed. She said, “When I married your grandfather, we couldn’t afford a pot big enough to fit a holiday ham. So we had to cut it off in order for it to fit. We used to save the part we cut off, but your mother couldn’t be bothered with such a small piece and just tossed it out.” In her effort to honor and maintain important family traditions, Mary had kept up a practice which had long since outlived its purpose and usefulness.

While these best practices may be useful for any company, they are even more important in a nonprofit organization, where pay scales are lower and volunteers are utilized. When you can’t afford to throw money at a problem, you have to start using social currency. The better you treat your people, the better they will perform. And by better, I don’t just mean nice. I mean with respect and competence.

Use Social Currency

  • Demonstrate value. Use Social Currency. To demonstrate value for something, you need to pay for it. If you don’t pay for good ideas, they dry up. You don’t necessarily have to pay with money. But it does mean that some exchange much occur. Some ways to pay for a good idea include the following: celebrate it, tell a third party who will tell the originator, implement it, ask for clarification, report back on the progress of the project, offer the opportunity to speak on or develop the topic with a group or have them post an article.
  • Pay well. Common courtesy is fine and useful in its place. But it is only a minimal form of social currency. It is not adequate payment for a good idea. You don’t go to a classy restaurant and tip like you’re at a pizza place. That would be the right form, but the wrong amount. If you don’t pay enough, your people will assume they have little to offer the organization.

Get Feedback

  • Get feedback regularly. Some define organizational success by an absence of complaints. However, if no one has complained lately then maybe you’re asking the wrong questions. It is unlikely that you are doing everything right. More likely is the prospect that you have silenced your audience. They may not know you allow, much less want, continuous feedback. The way you receive feedback is how you are known and sets the tone for the organization. The worse you do at receiving feedback, the harder it is for your people to contribute to and feel a part of your organization. Graciously court all feedback, taking only what you can use and leaving the rest. People mostly want to know that you heard them and have considered their idea.
  • Embrace feedback. The sharper and more educated your users are, the less likely they are to give feedback where it is not warmly embraced. It is not only inefficient, but self destructive to try to give feedback to an organization who doesn’t make good use of it. Sharp people know this and give up the battle early, usually without resentment or fanfare. They are sharp because they know how to make effective use of their time and attention. After they get quiet, all you will hear are those who feel the compulsion to share and they don’t even notice when their ideas are not warmly welcome.
  • Request Inspection. Ask someone to track your compliance on some task or policy. At first, this may seem overly critical, if you are not used to continuous quality improvements. But over time, it will become matter-of-fact and make your improvements easy. Requesting inspections will ramp up the volume and quality of the feedback you get, making it easier for all concerned. You may however, have to first earn their trust to demonstrate that you won’t kill the messenger.
  • Measure selectively. What you measure is what you get. What you measure tends to improve. A friend of mine was tired of yelling at his teenage son over his school grades. He decided to stop nagging and simply post the grades on the wall each week. The boy understood the goal and without any nagging, began to improve. Measuring performance is one way to establish a goal. But be careful what you measure, or you could distract your people from what is really important in their jobs. For example, if the only thing being measured in your service department is how many calls you take per hour, you will be rushing though the calls that actually require more attention.

Make Policy Count

  • Serve your subordinates. It is reasonable to think that employees serve the manager, given how much power managers have over employees. But in companies where managers serve the employees, productivity, morale and customer service all abound. It is common for managers to be in charge and boss people around. However, it is exceptional, and a best practice, for managers to keep asking their people, “What can I do to make your job easier?”
  • Minimize the number of policies. Don’t make corporate policy when what is really needed is a discussion with the one person abusing a tradition. For example, Casual Friday could mean business casual, not torn jeans. Don’t define the policy to include, “No torn jeans”. It offends those who already understood it. And it shirks the discussion you need to have with the offending employee. The more rules you have, the less you trust your people, and they know it. Trusted employees perform better. Trained employees are easier to trust.

Train Well

  • Micro-manage when needed. In recent years many people have come to believe that micromanaging is just wrong. There is nothing wrong with micromanaging, in the proper context. You need to give more direction, support and inspection when someone is just learning the job. But you want to train them so well, they need progressively less of it. But if you have never bothered to train the long-timers, then while your micromanaging may still be necessary, it reflects your failure to manage. Give direction when needed and train them not to need it.
  • Give new employees time and support. Managing by “throwing them to the dogs” means dumping someone into a position without adequate training. While it looks seductively efficient, it almost always costs you more in the long run, if only for the customers you have offended in the process. It also increases turnover of both employees and customers. Take the time to actually train, monitor and support your people.
  • Make learning easy. The more trivial things you require your people to remember, the less attention they can give to what you really hired them to do. Remembering the protocol comes from experience. But understanding it comes only from training and modeling. Make cheat sheets for the information that needs to be accessed repeatedly. Make FAQ’s, How To’s and Glossaries. Document your processes. Undocumented processes put your organization at risk.
  • Train for inheritance. The longer it takes to train your people to deliver competent performance, the worse your training. You should evolve your training program to the point where new people can come up to speed in a hurry. They should always know where to find the documented processes of the organization. Train your people as if you were preparing to leave the company. A friend of mine prided himself in training his 30 people so well that he could return from a two week vacation and get fully caught up on his work in only a few hours. In making himself the most replaceable person in the office, he became the most valuable.
  • Mentor both up and down. Reverse mentoring is when the newer people in the company, particularly the young ones, mentor the older ones, as in Social Media, Internet searches and blogging. Using your new people to mentor others not only empowers your more senior people to perform better, but also gives the new ones a great sense of contribution to the group.

Be Powerful

  • Never apologize when you can thank someone instead. People would rather feel like they helped you and made the organization better than to think they caused you distress. They would rather contribute than criticize, regardless of how clumsy they were about it. It may be your job to translate their criticism into a usable contribution. Then after you thank them, you might suggest ways that would make it easier to hear next time. Tell them the form in which you would like to receive such great contributions. On the other hand, if you really messed someone up, then apologize fully.
  • Never answer an important question with, “I don’t know.” Always add, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” If you don’t know if it’s an important question, just ask, “Is this an important question to you?” Don’t ask why it’s important. Answering such questions is tedious and demeaning. The more people say they don’t know, the more it looks like they just don’t care. Care enough to find out.
  • Rush to take blame. In most organizations, the hot potato of blame gets pushed around endlessly, causing work to stop. The better leaders always rush to take on the blame for what goes wrong. Why? Once the blame game stops, everyone can get back to work. When in doubt, take the fall. That said, it is not healthy or helpful to take on all the blame, all the time. Sometimes, you need to allow for others to take some blame, or even assign it to them.
  • Empower your people. It’s either money or power. The less money there is to go around, the more your people will hoard power and information and create fiefdoms. The more that people protect their turf, the more dangerous and difficult it becomes to communicate across the organization. The more you empower all your people to change the organization, the less they will be grabbing for power. This line establishes both freedom and boundaries. “Do whatever it takes to handle customer complaints, up to $20. Above that, come get me.”
  • Change gracefully. Resistance to change usually has survival value to the organization, but it comes at a price of healthy growth. At some point, developments in the workforce and marketplace will require change or threaten extinction. The very actions which allowed you to survive early on could later choke the organization. Embrace good ideas and allow your people to experiment, which includes the possibility of failure.
  • Spread the Power. The more important one personality is to the health of the organization, the more at risk you are, should that one person change their involvement. When Steve Jobs left Apple Computer, it almost sunk the company. Years later his return saved them. His capacity for vision and leadership is legendary and a cautionary tale. In most organizations, the presence of such a personality simply reflects poor planning and inadequate training more than it does super human powers.

Communicate Well

  • Avoid spam. Never put more than one name in the TO: field or CC: field, unless you have already cleared it with every single person on the list. Why? Because if just one person forwards the email full of addresses to a forum or spammer, then all the names can be collected for spam. Google the quoted phrase, “bcc for privacy” for more on this.
  • Use a Descriptive Subject. What if 8 people all emailed you about a meeting, but each one put only, “Hey” in the subject line? It makes it more difficult to manage the emails in your inbox. Better to put the real subject or question in the Subject line.
  • Pick up the phone. After 3 bounces of an email, pick up the phone. You save time. The more important the issue, the more it should be discussed live. The exception is when an audit trail of the conversation is needed. Sometimes a summary email of a live discussion will serve this purpose, assuring that everyone is on the same page.
  • Never use CAPS in an email, unless you mean to scream. And never scream in an email. Conversely, never use all lower case in email. It makes you look like a kid who does not respect his audience. Email is bad at expressing the emotional nuances of live discussions. Express emotions in person.
  • Set ultra-clear appointments. Rather than sending email that says, “We will connect Fri at 4,” say, “I’ll call you on Friday, 11/09/2009 at 4 PM EST. We should have at least an hour to discuss the Jones project.” Included: Date, day of week, time, am/pm, time zone, duration and agenda. Most of the time you won’t actually need all that detail. But the times you do, the redundancy will be your saving grace. One benefit of all that detail is that you can easily copy and paste it onto your electronic calendar.
  • Be polite. Ask before sending attachments. Or just send a link to the document online. Don’t use texting abbreviations. Proof read, spell check, make it easier to read. Outline complex emails. Ask, “What can I do to make this email as clear and easy to respond to as possible?” Go the extra mile so your audience doesn’t have to.


  1. http://www.emailreplies.com/ Email etiquette
  2. http://email.about.com/od/emailnetiquette/tp/core_netiquette.htm Top 26 Rules of Email Etiquette
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Micromanagement shows the conflicting ideas on the subject of Micromanagement
  4. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Kenneth+Blanchard:+the+One-Minute+Manager-a0151189054 Kenneth Blanchard: the One-Minute Manager overview
  5. http://www.hci.com.au/hcisite2/articles/deming.htm Deming’s 14 points of Total Quality Management (TQM). Note points 5, 8 and 9.

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