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Amy Coates Madsen describes how, by setting best practices for nonprofits, the Standards for Excellence program both helps nonprofits to improve and increases public confidence in them.

A program director has just been promoted to executive director and wants to learn about how her organization’s management and governance practices measure up to best practices within the sector. In the past, there was no easy way for her to benchmark how her organization’s practices compared to norms in the nonprofit sector, let alone to know whether such norms existed.

That changed in 1998 when the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations (Maryland Nonprofits) launched the Standards for Excellence program, a comprehensive ethics program that works to strengthen a nonprofit organization’s management and leadership, while increasing the public’s confidence in the nonprofit sector. The program is now being replicated in nonprofit associations in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio.

The program includes four components: 1) the Standards for Excellence, 2) nonprofit education about the standards, 3) voluntary certification of organizations meeting the standards, and 4) public education about nonprofit ethics and accountability.

1. The Standards
The Standards for Excellence is a code of conduct that covers eight major topic areas, including:

  • Mission and program evaluation
  • Governing body
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Human resources
  • Legal and financial issues
  • Openness and disclosure
  • Fundraising
  • Public policy/public affairs

Best practices in nonprofit organizations are outlined and carefully laid out in 55 performance indicators or standards.

Maryland Nonprofits encourages nonprofits to use the Standards for Excellence as a self-assessment checklist for ethical nonprofit operations. Most nonprofits implement about 45 of the 55 standards. Once a nonprofit organization conducts their baseline organizational assessment, the organization is encouraged to devise a plan to implement their remaining unmet standards. Implementing them is a comprehensive process involving both the organization’s board and staff.

2. Nonprofit Education
Maryland Nonprofits offers a wide variety of resources to help nonprofits implement the Standards for Excellence. Written educational materials, which include instructional pieces on each best practice, sample policies, procedures, and excerpts from some of the best experts in the fields, have been developed for each area.

Special courses also help introduce the practices and ideals espoused by the Standards of Excellence. One of the association’s most popular programs is a four-session clinic series where nonprofit leaders come together to learn about the details of the standards and engage in peer-to-peer exchange, a process to help organizations garner suggestions from their colleagues. In Maryland alone over 400 organizations have taken advantage of training courses to improve their operations.

3. Voluntary Certification
For nonprofits interested in adhering to all 55 performance indicators, Maryland Nonprofits offers a voluntary certification program. To date, 25 organizations have earned the Seal of Excellence for successfully completing this staff-assisted, peer review process.

4. Public Education
The Standards of Excellence public education effort informs the public about characteristics of well-managed, responsibly governed nonprofits. The association works to educate the public through ongoing media outreach, a public service announcement campaign, and by providing packages of easily adaptable promotional material to certified organizations for use with their donors and the public.

The Results
Do these efforts make a difference in strengthening nonprofit performance? A survey of over 350 nonprofit organizations shows that those with access to the services of the Standards for Excellence program have strengthened their governance, management, and organizational practices to a greater degree than organizations without access to the program. In addition, these organizations not only have higher expectations for their performance than the other organizations, but they also outperform them.

Amy Coates Madsen
Program Director
Standards for Excellence
Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations
190 West Ostend Street, Suite 201
Baltimore, MD 21230
Tel: 410-727-6367
Fax: 410-727-1914

For more information about the Standards for Excellence program visit For more information about Maryland Nonprofits visit or call 410-727-6367.

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