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Section 1. Criteria for Choosing Promising Practices and Community Interventions

Learn how to identify and choose a particular program or a way of doing something that has the potential to effectively address the issues in your community.


  • What is a promising practice or intervention?

  • Where do you find out about existing promising practices or interventions?

  • How do you identify a true promising practice or intervention?

  • How do you choose the particular practice or intervention that's right for your community?

The West Perry Youth Initiative (WPYI) has completed a careful assessment of youth issues involving all sectors of the community. The findings were revealing: kids and other community members alike were concerned and frightened by the number of kids who brought weapons to school, and by the number of violent incidents that most youth encountered daily. The initiative therefore has identified youth violence prevention as the area it most needs to address.

So far, so good. But a problem identified is not the same as a problem solved. Everyone knows that you can't just wave a magic wand and make youth violence in the community disappear. It's a complex issue that involves kids, parents, schools, the police, the community's finances, community attitudes, the availability of weapons - far too many things for the WPYI to address all at once. The initiative and the community have to choose an intervention that will work.

One way to deal with this issue is to look at what other communities have done to try to prevent youth violence. But the question then becomes "How do we know that a particular model will have the effect we're looking for?" WPYI has some choices here:

  • It could just do what most other communities are doing, without worrying about how well it works. (This may sound silly, but a surprising number of organizations in a variety of fields adopt this approach.)
  • It could invent something from scratch. After all, there was a lot of community involvement in the assessment and planning process. Surely, if we put all those brains together, we can come up with some good ideas.
  • It could look for some practices and interventions that are already being used elsewhere that seem to be successful in the ways that WPYI has in mind.

This chapter is about finding out what kinds of practices and interventions are possible, choosing what's appropriate for your purposes and your community, and adapting it to the particular needs and character of your community and target population. In this opening section of the chapter, we'll discuss how to tell whether a practice or intervention is one that has a chance of fulfilling your purposes.

What is a promising practice or intervention?

Promising practices and interventions are that those that have the potential to effectively address the issues of concern in your community. They are usually (though not always, as we'll see) things that seem to have worked elsewhere, as judged by standards that make sense for your community and your issue.

What's the difference between a practice and an intervention?

A practice is a particular way of doing things. It may encompass a whole program or it may simply refer to a single method or a way of looking at things. Inoculating infants against particular diseases at particular ages because that time schedule seems to provide them the greatest protection is an example of a practice. Another is barring - or not barring - access to homeless shelters to people who are actively under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

An intervention is usually a whole program or initiative meant to achieve an overall result. In the first example above, for instance, the practice is inoculating infants at specific ages. The intervention chosen to carry out this practice would probably be an integrated program of making contact with the mothers of infants, providing incentives to get their children inoculated, following up to make sure that the children were getting other health care, etc.

In the situation of the homeless shelter, the practice of barring those actively under the influence would be part of a larger intervention package: making contact with homeless people, particularly in cold or nasty weather, providing a warm and safe place to sleep, and perhaps offering such other services as job training and placement. The practice of excluding users would be aimed toward assuring the physical safety and psychological comfort - and the return - of others who needed the intervention.

Practices are the tools that interventions use to get the job done. Sometimes a whole intervention may be considered a practice. An adult literacy or job training program, for instance, might be seen as a necessary practice in the context of a larger initiative to eliminate poverty in a community. A drug treatment program with several components might be seen as a single practice if it is accepted that the program needs all those components and a given structure in order to work.

Untried practices and interventions

Promising practices and interventions may also be untried, but based on something solid. Sometimes, there is no model for what you want to do, or at least no satisfactory one. In that case, there are places to look for ideas.

  • Theory. You may have read about a new idea, or may know an academic whose research is in the area you're concerned with. Trying out a practice or intervention grounded in theory is a way both to come up with a strategy that has a good chance of working and to test the theory as well.

Many years ago, a Harvard undergraduate took a psychology course from B.F. Skinner, the behavioral theorist. Skinner's work with pigeons had shown that positive reinforcement - i.e. rewarding a subject for certain actions - worked best when it was not regular. If you don't reward the pigeon every time, it's more likely to keep doing what you want it to, because it never knows when it will get the reward. If the reward is constant, the bird can make a choice: "I've had enough food for the moment; I don 't think I'll peck right now."

The undergraduate spent the summer after the course as a camp counselor. He decided to try Skinner's theory on his bunk of rowdy nine-year-olds. If they went to sleep quietly on time, if they lined up for meals when asked, etc., he would give them candy...sometimes. Sure enough, by the end of the summer, he had the best-behaved bunk in camp. When he got back to Harvard in the fall, he went to see Skinner and described his experience. Skinner was excited, because this was the first time that variable reinforcement, as he called it, had been tested on humans. Here was an example of a promising practice growing out of theory.

  • Past experience. You may have tried or seen something that worked well in a similar situation, or you may have evidence from what you've done before that certain methods are likely to work well under certain circumstances. That's a reasonable basis for action.
  • Analysis of the problem, especially one that comes from a broad community discussion. If lots of people are involved in looking at the issue, including members of the target population and the community at large, solutions are likely to emerge that address real causes. These kinds of solutions tend to take into account the history and cultural realities of the community, and to have a reasonable chance of success.

New practices and interventions have to start somewhere. Sometimes they start from entirely new ideas or new perceptions of an issue. You may be in a situation where that's appropriate. One caution, however: there are few ideas that are totally new. If you do have a new idea, check around and see if it or something similar has been tried before. If it has, you may be able to get some suggestions about to how to make it work and how to avoid pitfalls.

Where do you find out about existing promising practices or interventions?

The discussion above, of course, brings up the question of where to look for promising practices and interventions. There are a number of possibilities, and the ideal is to use as many of them as you can. The best strategy for learning about promising practices and interventions is to find and contact directly the programs or initiatives using the practices or interventions you're interested in.

Some sources of information about promising practices and interventions:


Talk to everyone you know. Directors and staff from other agencies, coalition members, and others may know about things happening in the area, or even state- or nationwide. They may be able to provide introductions, or at least information so that you can contact programs or initiatives and learn about what they're doing.

The Internet.

The Internet grows by millions of sites a year. Once you develop good search skills, you can find nearly anything.


Public libraries are open to all. Private colleges and universities may let you use their libraries, even if you have no connection to the institution. If you've attended the institution, you may be eligible for alumni privileges. In many states, public colleges and universities grant regular privileges to state residents. Much of the material referred to above resides in libraries, and librarians can be extremely helpful in finding what you're looking for. They're persistent and knowledgeable, they often enjoy the search itself, and they get satisfaction from being able to help.

State and national advocacy and professional organizations.

These organizations often give awards for best practices, or document them in journal articles and at conferences. The journals are usually available in libraries, either public or academic, and often on the Internet as well; conference proceedings are often posted on the Internet. You can contact the organization to find out what's available.

International, state and federal agencies.

UNESCO, the U.S. Council of Mayors, HUD, and others often have listings of "best practices" in programs they fund. These may be on the Internet (see Resources for several listings), in government publications, or available in print from the agencies themselves.

Foundations and other private funders.

These funders also may list best practices, or may simply describe projects they fund. Many of these lists and descriptions are also on the Internet, in libraries, or are available from the funders themselves.


Local colleges and universities may have researchers looking at just what you're concerned with, or know others who are. Furthermore, there may be graduate students who'd like to work with you on a project. They're often paid by university grants, and if they want to evaluate or document what you do for a master's or doctoral thesis, you might get not only their expertise, but also some other free services. Start by contacting the university department most closely connected to the work you do - education, environmental science, psychology, public health, etc.

Word of mouth from the community.

Clergy, members of service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc), and members of the business community all may have knowledge through their networks of intervention models elsewhere. In addition, other community members, including members of the target population, may know of successful programs or initiatives similar to the one you want to start.

How do you identify a true promising practice or intervention?

Once you've looked at a number of "best practices" and talked to some folks about their programs, how do you decide what really works, and what might work for you? First, you need to determine what the best practices you've been looking at are best practices for. Then, the question is what criteria do you use to identify best practices and interventions. In other words, how do you know they actually work? Finally, what are some of the common elements of successful practices and interventions, elements that you can incorporate into whatever you decide to do?

Best practice for what?

Particular best practices may or may not be relevant to your goals. Many organizations, agencies, or government departments identify best practices as those which solve a specific problem or treat a specific condition. Thus, a best practice in child and family services might be one that targets child abuse, and reduces it drastically through increased vigilance and enforcement by child protective workers. These practices and interventions are certainly vital - no one would deny the need to reduce child abuse as quickly and drastically as possible - but they often fail to address the underlying causes of the issue.

Another type of best practice focuses on prevention. In the case of child abuse, for instance, a "best practice" preventive intervention might include the vigilance and enforcement, but would also address the issue on other levels. These might include counseling for the abused child; parent counseling for abusers; widely available parenting skills courses, particularly for those at risk of abusing their children; the establishment of parenting groups; family fun activities, to encourage parents to enjoy their children; and an attempt, through school programs, media ads, and other avenues to change community attitudes that accept child abuse.

Finally, there's a type of best practice that promotes certain behaviors, attitudes, or causes. Again, this type of practice or intervention looks to root causes of problems and issues, but approaches them from a positive angle. It asks people to do something, rather than to stop doing something. Campaigns promoting condom use and safe sex as a defense against AIDS are an example. They don't suggest that everyone should stop having sex (unlikely in any case), but rather that they should adopt some behaviors that will protect them from risk. Many health programs have switched from disease prevention to health promotion, emphasizing taking positive steps to maintain and improve current and long-term health through daily attention to diet, exercise, stress, and other health-related factors.

As you look for best practices, you should be clear about what kind of practices and interventions you're interested in (and have the resources for). Are you intending to run a treatment program, which addresses the manifestations of a particular problem or issue? Are you, instead, planning a prevention program, through which you'll try to address and change the root causes of the problem or issue? Or will you sponsor a promotion program, which approaches the issue from a positive standpoint? Being clear about the direction you choose will help you decide which among many best practices or promising interventions might work for you.

Running a program with a focus on one of these three approaches doesn't mean you can't also address the other two. No one would suggest, for instance, that an intervention meant to prevent child abuse wouldn't also try to stop current abuse and provide or find counseling for victims and offenders.

There's another element to the question of what a best practice is meant to do: what is the real problem or issue that your community needs to address?

Criteria for identifying best practices and interventions

There are essentially two ways you can look at a practice or intervention: quantitatively and qualitatively.

The quantitative view uses numbers to analyze and understand the impact of particular practices or interventions on their target populations. These numbers may be used in simple or complex ways. They could merely state the number of people served, or the number who accomplished something specific. They can be used to make simple comparisons that point up what seems to have happened as a result of what's been done. Or they can be used in statistical analysis, to try to draw complex conclusions about the effects of a program.

If we look at a youth violence prevention program that's been running for two years, for instance, there may be several different kinds of numbers that tell us something. First, there are community numbers:

  • The difference in the number of violent deaths of people under 18 in the past year, compared to the year before the program started. (In Boston, a Stop the Violence initiative that began as a reaction to the death of two young children caught in drive-by shooting crossfires, was able to prove its effectiveness by the fact that within two years, the annual number of youths murdered in the city went from dozens to 0.)
  • The difference in the number of youths charged with illegal handgun possession.
  • The difference in the number of youths arrested for violent crimes.
  • The difference in the number of 911 calls involving youths.

Then, there are program numbers:

  • The number of youth educated in conflict resolution in school.
  • The increase (or the number itself, if they didn't previously exist) in the number of trained peer mediators, especially in elementary and middle school grades.
  • The number of conflicts mediated in the schools by peer mediators.
  • The number of contacts between youth and program personnel.
  • The number of parents completing parent education courses.

All of these numbers should have some bearing on the effectiveness of the program.

Although these numbers may not always mean much (as Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."), even simple numbers can be an indication of how well a practice or intervention is working. If the number of people a program serves keeps growing, and if most of those people stay in the program long enough for the program to have some effect, the chances are good that it's doing something positive. The growth of a health or human service program usually means that the word on the street is that it's a good thing. The fact that people stay in it usually means that they're getting what they need.

Even with these simple and apparently straightforward numbers, however, there may be other circumstances you need to know about. Is the program or some other source paying people to attend, for instance? And, more important, what is the program actually accomplishing? Its goal may be job training, for instance, but people may be attending because of the social aspects of the classes. Unless they're also absorbing the substance of the training, the program isn't accomplishing what it set out to, even though its attendance and completion rates are high.

Quantitative analysis is generally considered objective, and a good indication of whether anything has happened as a result of a program. More often than not, it is what public funders and public officials demand as "proof" of the effectiveness of their use of taxpayers' money. Unfortunately, quantitative analysis by itself often fails to prove anything one way or another, even when it seems to.

Take the case of an intervention which loses a large proportion of those it serves every year. By the standards we've discussed, that means it doesn't work, right? Well, maybe. While that may be true, let's look at the people who don't leave: what if they turn out to be remarkably successful? Why? And what would happen if the program were different? Would that make any difference in whether more participants stayed in or not?

It may be that this program should be aimed at a narrower group, or that the folks who left would leave any program, because they simply aren't in a place in their lives where these services seem necessary to them. (It's well known in the field, for instance, that it's very difficult to keep 16- to 24-year-old male dropouts in adult education programs. They just don't see the relevance of education to their lives. When they get older, it becomes clearer to them.) Quantitative data may not give you the answers to any of these questions.

Numbers don't always give a full picture, or provide the information you need. Many officials grow impatient, for instance, with adult literacy programs if learners don't show dramatic quantitative results in short amounts of time. These officials forget that most kids need 12 years to get to the reading level of a 12th grader. Why should they expect adults who have had reading difficulties all their lives to be able to advance several grade levels in six months or a year?

Qualitative analysis looks at what actually happens when a particular practice or intervention is used. It can include anything from anecdotes and snapshots (in words or actual pictures) to a painstaking analysis of trends and actions over a long period of time. A psychologist's records are a qualitative analysis, for instance, as are most essays by historians, literary and art critics, and political scientists.

Qualitative analysis of the effectiveness of a youth violence prevention program may be less exact than the numbers, but it also may be more informative in some ways. Let's look at some possible qualitative evidence.

  • Teachers say they feel safer in school.
  • Elementary teachers feel they 're breaking up fewer fights, and often see kids working out differences peacefully in ways they didn't previously.
  • Peer mediators feel as well-respected as athletes in the schools.
  • There are more people on the street, especially at night.
  • Police feel more welcome in neighborhoods.
  • Police feel less on edge, and talk to kids on the street more.
  • Police and teachers are less aware than previously of gang colors.
  • Sports events and participation seem to have taken on more popularity and importance among youth.
  • There are testimonials to the positive effects of the program from community members and from kids and parents.

The quantitative analysis of the program seemed to show that there were fewer violent incidents and that more kids were being given the skills to avoid violence if they chose to. The qualitative analysis showed that more than a simple reduction in violent incidents was taking place. In fact, kids were using the skills they had been taught, and the whole climate of violence was changing. Using both the quantitative and qualitative data makes it possible to see that the program seems to be changing youth attitudes toward violence, which is likely to have a far greater long-term effect than merely reducing the number of incidents through enforcement or increased awareness.

The lesson here is that the combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis is what's likely to give you the best picture of reality, and make it possible to identify a promising practice or intervention. That's not the end of the lesson, however. Let's go back to that program in the box above that seems to serve a small number of people extremely well. What can we learn from that example?

If we make the standards for a "best practice" too strict, we're apt to reject some possibilities that may have potential. Remember, things work differently in different places and in different circumstances. If your standards are "nothing but the Mercedes," you'll never buy that Subaru that can get you home in the snow while your Mercedes is spinning its wheels in the parking lot.

The American Psychological Association (APA) set out to find prevention programs that worked (collected in 14 Ounces of Prevention: A Casebook for Practitioners ). The standards that the review committee decided on to choose the programs were so rigorous (hard, quantitative - and only quantitative - data in a large number of categories, including follow-up; and enough documentation so that someone could reproduce the program exactly elsewhere) that they only found 14 programs, out of 300 submitted, that met their criteria.

In fact, in order to produce the kind of research results the APA required, a program had to be funded to do just that, which most programs are not. By applying such strict criteria, the APA panel undoubtedly eliminated a large number of extremely effective programs which could have provided models or ideas for many more. (While not quite going so far as to admit that its criteria might have been too strict, APA does admit that a number of effective programs were probably omitted from this casebook.)

When you look for promising practices and interventions, start by casting a wide net. Something that works only adequately in another community may be dynamite for yours, with a little tweaking. By the same token, something that works well someplace else may not be appropriate for you.

Another element of your search should be finding out what didn't work. You may have a terrific idea with a hidden flaw that has already been discovered elsewhere. Or there may have been an attempt to do something similar in your community before, with disastrous results because of a cultural factor. Knowing your history can save you vast amounts of time, energy, and frustration. It's one of the most important criteria for assessing promising practices and interventions.

General characteristics of a successful program

One way to approach the search for promising practices and interventions is to look at the general elements of programs that seem to work. Lisbeth Schorr, in her book Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1997), discusses what works in improving outcomes specifically for children and families. She identifies "Seven Attributes of Highly Effective Programs":

  • Successful programs are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering. They address many aspects of an issue rather than a single one; they can, and do, change according to the needs of the participants and the community; and they hang in there for as long as it takes to accomplish their purpose.
  • Successful programs see children in the context of families. In other words, they take the view that children don't exist in a vacuum, and that you have to understand their families in order to understand them and their issues. You also have to aim interventions at the whole family, not just the child.
  • Successful programs deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities. Families don't exist in a vacuum, either. An intervention hoping to have an effect on families needs to consider their communities as well. Such interventions respond to community needs, staff themselves with people from the same groups as those who live in the community, and try to build leadership and other capacities in local people.
  • Successful programs have a long-term preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time. Successful programs target the underlying causes of problems, rather than just providing band-aid treatment for the symptoms, and realize that getting at those causes may take years. They know what they're trying to do, and that doesn't change; but they do change the ways they do things as they discover better ways, or as the needs and responses of participants and the community change. By being dynamic, these programs continually strive to do better, and to respond to their target populations.

As Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman pointed out in In Search of Excellence, the key here is to be tight about your mission, but loose about how to achieve it. The mission itself - what you aim to accomplish in the long run - is non-negotiable. How you go about accomplishing it, however, should be flexible, and geared to the realities of the situation. It may change continually in response to new information, changes in the community, and the reactions of the target population.

  • Successful programs are managed by competent and committed individuals with clearly identifiable skills. Schorr identifies some of those skills as willingness to experiment and take risks, to tolerate ambiguity, to seek evidence of results, to be collaborative, and to allow staff discretion.

Other skills that must be added here are the practical managerial skills that assure that bills are paid, that there's a reasonable budget in place and that it 's not exceeded, that funders receive the reports and other information they require, and that staff issues are dealt with quickly, fairly, and well. No matter how collaborative and community-based an organization is, someone has to write the rent check and get it in the mail on time.

  • Staffs of successful programs are trained and supported to provide high quality, responsive service. Just as target populations have to be considered in context, so do staff members of organizations. They need an organizational climate that supports their work and puts a premium on ongoing education and training for everyone in order to function at their peak.
  • Successful programs operate in settings that encourage practitioners to build strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect. This means that instead of fostering the patronizing staff/client structure characteristic of so many health and human service agencies, good programs recognize that there are no human differences between staff and participants. When a current or potential participant - or anyone else - walks through the door, she is greeted as a friend and equal, and is treated similarly by everyone in the program. A successful program is welcoming, and has no class distinctions.

In addition to Schorr's seven attributes, there are two more that might be added:

  • Successful programs are collaborative both internally and externally. Internal collaboration refers to the inclusion of both staff and participants in the planning, implementation, and decision-making of the program. External collaboration means involving a broad range of agencies, officials, schools, and whoever else has some connection to the issue at hand. This makes it easier to provide coordinated, articulated services, and to hit the issue from all angles.
  • Successful programs and their staffs generally have, both institutionally and individually, a set of relationships and core values that strengthen their sense of shared purpose, and give them faith that disappointments and setbacks can be overcome. These values often manifest themselves as a passion for the work and for social justice, and translate into their relationships with participants as the encouragement of personal development and empowerment.

All of these nine attributes might apply to a program of any sort: how do they help you sort out promising practices for what you want to accomplish? In fact, these general characteristics are some of the promising practices you need to pay the most attention to. They provide an overall structure for a program that works. How you decide to approach your specific issue should depend on the needs of your community, what the target population is comfortable with and will respond to, a participatory planning process, the talents and skills of your staff, etc.

The nine attributes here paint a picture of a program that is responsive, flexible, egalitarian, collaborative, well-managed, competent, aware of context, supportive of staff members and their development, and committed for the long term to a clear mission. If you can adopt these general characteristics, the chances are your intervention will do well. To make it the best it can be, it's necessary to find - or create or adapt - the specific practices and/or interventions that are right for your community.

How do you choose the particular practice or intervention that's right for your community?

All of these steps assume community involvement, ideally in both planning and implementing an intervention.

  • Conduct a community-based assessment and planning process to be sure that you're addressing the issues that are most appropriate and pressing for the community. If your intervention is to work, it has to be aimed at the real issues the community needs to address. An assets and needs assessment and planning process will help you not only to identify those issues accurately, but also to think about how to approach them most effectively.
  • Decide whether you'll address the issue directly, or whether you'll try to change the conditions that make it possible. It may be that working on their causes will be more successful than coming at the issues themselves directly; and that could mean a totally different kind of intervention.
  • Find (or create, if that's necessary) practices or interventions that have successfully addressed the issue in the way you want to address it. It's important to realize that not every successful program is successful in the way that you're interested in. If your focus is community empowerment, for instance, a top-down authoritarian program, no matter how successful, isn't what you're looking for. If you want to get at the root causes of a problem, a program that does a terrific job of treating the symptoms isn't a good fit for you. Make sure that a practice or intervention matches not only your immediate needs - reducing youth violence, e.g. - but the assumptions behind them - empowering the community to change the root causes of youth violence, and to all but eliminate it over the long term.
  • Determine what elements of a promising intervention will work in your community, and which ones need to be changed. In other words, change the intervention, or parts of it, so that it suits your community's needs. Not all the pieces of an urban program will work in a rural area, for instance, where the realities of transportation, child care, culture, and everyday life all may be totally different. The community and the target population need to make an adopted practice or intervention their own, and make it work for them. If it's true that no two communities are exactly alike, it should be equally true that interventions that work for them won't be exactly alike, either, though they may have many common elements.

Everett Rogers, in his book Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 1995), writes of the concept of "reinvention." Individuals and organizations, when adopting a new practice or idea, often make it their own by changing it - sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically - to meet their particular needs. These "reinvented " innovations work better and are more likely to be adopted permanently than those which are simply accepted as they are. The reasons for their success lie both in their better adaptation to their circumstances and in the sense of ownership that changing them confers on those who use them.

  • Implement the intervention, making adjustments as you go along. It's probably helpful to start out with the expectation that you'll have to make changes as you learn more about the fit between the practices you've adopted or created and the target population. That attitude will make it easier to make those changes, and thus to become more and more effective as time goes on.
  • Evaluate your work and results regularly, understanding that no matter how well any intervention works, it can always be improved. It's important to examine your work and outcomes continually, whether formally or informally, so that you'll have more than intuition to tell you whether you're achieving your goals or not. It's perhaps even more important to keep the idea of a dynamic program always before you, so that no matter how well you're doing, you'll still be willing to try something new if it looks promising.

In the rest of this part of the section, we'll concentrate on finding and choosing the appropriate practice and intervention for your community.

Difficulties in finding practices or interventions you can use:

One possibility, of course, is finding the best program around and simply copying it exactly in your community. That should be fairly simple to do, shouldn't it? Actually, no... it's not. Copying - replication is the term that's most often used - doesn't always work well. Lisbeth Schorr, again, has some ideas on this subject:

  • Excellent programs often don't travel well. You may know that some fine wines can't be sold far from where they're made, because the shaking they go through when they're being shipped changes their character. Community interventions can change character when they're transported, too.
    • You can't necessarily take something that works in one community and expect it to work the same way in another, entirely different, community. An intervention's success depends on the needs and peculiarities of its community. A successful intervention from elsewhere may need, at the least, to be readjusted to fit a new situation and culture.
    • Even where an intervention was tremendously effective, people may not be able to tell you exactly what they did. Some programs keep careful records of nearly everything; others keep almost none. Some programs are based on clear theoretical and philosophical foundations; others "just grew" out of their founders' intuitions. So you may not be able to replicate a program exactly simply because no one can tell you what "exactly " is.
    • A successful intervention - especially one which is hard to describe - may depend largely on the talents or intuitive understanding of a single individual or small group. Sometimes, such a program can't be replicated because no one else has the dedication, or the sensitivity, or the personal skills to reproduce it.
  • Even if you can replicate it exactly, you can't expect people to accept and embrace a program if it's imposed upon them from above. They have to be part of its planning and (where possible) implementation in order to feel some ownership of it.
  • No intervention or practice that involves people - either staff or participants - is perfect. Once you throw in the human factor, all bets are off: you never know what might happen. So even a great program will probably need to change as circumstances and needs (and individuals themselves) change.

A successful adult literacy program found itself changing continually to keep up with changes in its learner population. Because of such external factors as the local economy, the availability of drugs on the street, education and immigration reform, and a revamping of the foster-care system, the majority of the program's population shifted among teen dropouts, unemployed adults, substance abusers, native speakers of languages other than English, and women who were victims of domestic abuse. Each of these groups required different practices and a different environment. Staff members were constantly adjusting both their educational methods and their ways of relating to learners in and out of the classroom.

  • The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful intervention can be subtle. It may be as simple as the way a participant is greeted the first time she walks through the door, or whether the space is welcoming and comfortable. Often, the subtleties aren't even part of the intervention itself (small shifts in the economic climate, unspoken pressure from welfare case workers), so that no one can tell you about them. People simply aren't aware of what it is that either drives participants away or keeps them eagerly coming back several days a week. As a result, replicating a successful program may be more complicated than it looks, no matter how well documented the program and its practices are.
  • If you can't replicate an intervention's resources as well as its practices, you're probably headed for trouble. Over the 1980s and '90s in the United States, as the public's and Congress's attitudes toward low income people hardened, funding for many kinds of interventions dried up. Those replicating successful programs were - and are - often told to do so with far fewer resources than the original programs had, making success all but impossible for even the best models.

Keys to success in replication

Just as there are difficulties in replicating successful programs, there are also some factors that will help replication work. They depend largely on characteristics of the original intervention (the first six of these are also from the work of Lisbeth Schorr):

  • Ideas that are sound and well-developed through experience. Interventions that are solid, based on proven and well-tried concepts, are apt to be successful anywhere.
  • Ideas that can be taught and can inspire local leadership. Not only do the ideas behind the intervention have to be intellectually solid and practical, they must be simple enough to understand, and powerful enough to convince local people to take ownership of them and the intervention.
  • A sense of mission, of belonging to something larger. The program has to carry a vision that transcends the community and the local issue, and connects people with a greater good. This goes back to the sense of passion for the work and for social justice mentioned earlier. A program can more easily be replicated if it connects people to a larger goal that they see as changing the world for the better.
  • Access to people who have successfully implemented the program. As emphasized from the beginning of this section, the best way to find out about a program is to consult the people who are actually carrying it out. They can give you the details that no one else can, and help you adjust the subtle and personal elements that can mean the difference between success and failure.
  • Supportive and wise consultation. This consultation might come from colleagues in other organizations; from funding organizations; from members of the community and target population; or from a hired consultant with experience in the field.
  • Technical assistance that recognizes there are new things to be discovered.
  • Local involvement in initial planning for, finding and choosing, and implementing the intervention. This will help to develop both local ownership and local stewardship of the intervention.
  • Awareness on the part of funders that trying to replicate a program that 's been successful elsewhere doesn't guarantee success overnight, or even at all. Even the best models need to be adapted to local conditions and cultures to make them work well, and that can take time. Funders often defeat their own purpose by looking for results from Day 1. No one expects Little Leaguers to be signed by the Red Sox after their first month of play: funders shouldn't expect programs to perform at their peak without having a chance to adjust and build.
  • Adequate resources - people, money, supplies, and time - to achieve your goals. Don't bite off more than you can chew.

Elements of successful replications of effective programs

Just as there are factors in the programs themselves, there are also elements in the replication process that lead to successful replication. Some elements of successful replications:

  • They combine the replication of the essence of a successful intervention with the adaptation of many of its components to a new setting or population. Every program needs to be adapted to its community, its specific target population, the skills and concerns of the staff members who run it, etc.
  • They have had the continuous backing of an intermediary organization. This might be a local coalition, a grass roots group, a particular agency - some entity that could offer expertise, mobilize support, lend legitimacy and clout, and connect the intervention with the appropriate local networks.
  • They recognize the importance of the systems and institutional context. They seek settings where the interventions are welcome, and where there's a real commitment to their success. That usually means they'll be able to operate with few constraints, and to feel comfortable and part of the larger entity.
  • They recognize the importance of people. They understand that participants need to believe in the intervention's importance and value, and to be committed to its success.
  • They judge success by the outcomes for individuals and communities. What actually happens - whether participants meet their goals, whether the appropriate changes take place in the community - is the standard for whether these interventions consider themselves effective.
  • They tackle, directly and strategically, the obstacles to large-scale change. Successful interventions look beyond the immediate issue to the fundamental causes. Part of a successful youth violence prevention program, for instance, would focus on changing community attitudes toward violence and on fostering family involvement, as well as increasing community vigilance and law enforcement to cut down on incidents.

In Summary

Choosing a promising practice or intervention for your purposes may not be a simple matter. What works in another community may not work in yours, and it may be difficult to actually determine how a particular successful intervention operates.

There are, however, some general elements that good programs seem to have in common:

  • Responsiveness
  • Flexibility
  • An egalitarian philosophy
  • Commitment to collaboration
  • Good management
  • Competency
  • Awareness of the context of the issue and the target population
  • Commitment for the long term to a clear mission

In addition to these general characteristics, there are some factors that identify successful replications. They include the adaptation of program features to local needs and cultures; backing by an intermediary organization; an understanding of the importance of the community and human context of the work; judging of success by individual and community outcomes; and a focus on root causes.

The process of choosing may be difficult, but it doesn't have to be a crapshoot: if you follow the guidelines in this section, and listen to the voices of the community and the target population, you can help to transform your community.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

A paper entitled "Best Practices for Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs " from the Centers for Disease Control.

Best Practices for Human Settlements. UNCHS (Habitat) and the Together Foundation. A catalogue of good and best practices in a number of health, human service, and development areas.

CDC - Youth Violence: Best Practices of Youth Violence Prevention. A downloadable 216-page sourcebook on youth violence prevention from the Centers for Disease Control.

Chapter 11: Community Interventions in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" explains professionally-led versus grassroots interventions, what it means for a community intervention to be effective, why a community needs to be ready for an intervention, and the steps to implementing community interventions.

Community Health Advisor from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a helpful online tool with detailed information about evidence-based polices and programs to reduce tobacco use and increase physical activity in communities.

Community Interventions. "School and Community Intervention to Prevent Serious and Violent Offending," an article from the Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Sept., 1999. An evaluation of the effectiveness of eight different types of community youth violence prevention interventions, from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

Criteria for Choosing Promising Practices and Community Interventions. UNESCO database on indigenous knowledge.

HHS - Families & Children. Reports on best practices in various areas of service for children and families from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. This site is a gold mine, because rather than simply referencing programs, it gives a fairly detailed evaluation of best practices in each of several areas of child and family services.

National Civic League's Alliance for National Renewal. Providing resources to communities, including best practices.

Best practices in community health from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Print Resources

Monsey, B., Owen,G., Zierman, C., Lambert, L., & Hyman, V., (1995) What Works in Preventing Rural Violence. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Peters, J., & Robert, H., Waterman, Jr. (1982). In Search of Excellence. New York, NY: Harper and Rowe. 

Price, H., Cowen, L., Lorion, P., & Ramos-McKay, J., (eds.) (1988). 14 Ounces of Prevention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

Rogers, M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York, NY: Free Press,

Schorr, L. (1997).  Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America. New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday.