52 Tips in 52 Weeks: “This is the way it’s always been done!” – is this mentality stopping you from achieving excellence?

November 30, 2020

As frequent readers of this blog know, the Standards for Excellence: and Ethics Code for the Nonprofit Sector document is a consensus model for how the most well-managed and responsibly-governed nonprofits operate.  This means that when nonprofit leaders review the tenets and benchmarks of the code, they generally agree with the benchmarks and principles.  But, on the other hand, there are many fewer organizations who can say that they live by every one of the sixty-seven Standards. Standards for Excellence accredited organizations can say this! Achieving accreditation takes intentional planning and implementation, potentially mixed in with negotiation and debate among board and staff members over specific standards.  So, if nonprofit leaders agree with benchmarks like having a conflict of interest policy, annual evaluation of the executive director, and having an advocacy policy, what is the disconnect between agreement and implementation? For some, of course, it’s the rush of so many different responsibilities and not enough time. For others, it’s a bit of adherence to the “because this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. Think about your own organization—how many times do you fall back on solving problems by past experiences and past actions?

Last week, the Standards for Excellence Institute held the 2020 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant program.   During the program, class members were treated to presentations and discussions conducted by leading experts, including a board governance expert, Marla Bobowick of Bobowick Consulting, and a Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant. She suggested that boards should check themselves every time someone states “that’s the way this has always been done” or “that’s the way we’ve always done this.”  She offered that board members and nonprofit leaders should consistently challenge themselves when this phrase is uttered and Marla made a suggestion that it would be great to issue brightly colored paddles for folks to hold up whenever this phrase passes someone’s lips (and that the back of the paddle should say simply “Why?”). Perhaps with a visual reminder to challenge ourselves every time someone states that we should continue with how things have always been done, we’ll put ourselves in a better position to take that step to implement that benchmark in the Standards for Excellence code that we haven’t yet tackled!  What will it be for your organization? Which benchmark are you particularly interested in moving from the “should do list” to the “completed list”?  Maybe you’d like to focus on stronger program evaluation strategies, a new communications policy, or a new approach to working with others who are raising money on your behalf? Marla, thank you for helping us remember this practice that sometimes thwarts our efforts to get the job done. Your paddle is in the mail, Marla!  Here’s a prototype!

The Standards for Excellence Institute offers a comprehensive collection of Standards for Excellence educational resource packets that include sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management – can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner,– one of the over 170 Standards for Excellence  Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director of Programs for Maryland Nonprofits and the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-four years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management.