Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery

Posted: April 11, 2013

I love getting credit for my great ideas. So when I see someone else using them, my 10-year-old alter ego is likely to stomp her feet and yell ‘copycat’. But temper tantrums aside, what’s wrong with using someone else’s great ideas? In the right context, there’s no problem at all. In fact we call these ‘best practices’ and encourage each other to share them widely.

Imitation in the world of community organizations can be a wonderful thing. Although each organization’s mission may differ, the way each operates is probably more similar than would first appear. It doesn’t matter if your organization is focused on improving water quality, revitalizing downtown or reducing child obesity: your organizational structure is probably very similar to a dozen others in your community. You have a board of directors, committees, staff and volunteers. You have agendas, minutes, annual reports and newsletters. And you probably have a website, Facebook page, and other social media.

    The tools you need to manage your organization are also similar: policies and procedures ranging from financial management to job descriptions to confidentiality. Some of these are pretty standard such as board orientation materials, volunteer job descriptions, petty cash policies, and crisis communications plans. (If your organization doesn’t have these things, trust me: you need them.) Others tools are emerging with our changing world. How many nonprofits had social media policies 10 years ago? 

    Keeping the organization’s toolbox up to date can seem daunting. But here’s where imitation comes in: find a good set of policies and procedures from one of your organizational neighbors, and adapt them for your own use. Ask permission, of course, because some organizations may not be able to share due to internal constraints. Or they may have spent money on their tools and would like some compensation for sharing them with you. You can share other things too, like consultants, books and web resources.  Are your board members subject to term limits? Perhaps you can share them with another organization.

    How do you get started? Build relationships with other organizations in your community. Seek out like-minded non-profits. Some county human services departments host informal networks of nonprofit service providers. United Way does the same thing for its member agencies, and healthcare systems often do as well (check with your local hospital or health system foundation). If you can’t find a nonprofit networking group, start one yourself. Contact a networking group in a nearby community that you’d like to imitate, and ask them how they do it.  Or ask us: Penn State Extension’s Economic and Community Development educators will have some good ideas for you, too.

     Maintaining the organizational toolbox is just one of the many aspects of organizational process that’s often overlooked in our busy get-it-done mindsets.  At Penn State Extension we encourage organizations to spend time looking at how you operate: everything from effective meetings to conflict management to strategic planning.  By creating more organizational effectiveness, we hope to help you meet your mission and do the good work of community-building. To learn more about Penn State Extension’s community development programs, visit

Contact Information

Judy Chambers
  • Educator, Economic and Community Development
Phone: 717-334-6271 x313