Friday, January 30, 2015

Governance Toolbox: Nonprofit board research reports edition

This week, I share links to two recent reports that may be of interest to nonprofit boards.

Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices -- If you follow nonprofit governance sources anywhere, you've probably already at least seen references to BoardSource's new biennial governance index. Leading with Intent, which reports on data gathered from BoardSource members in 2014, comes with both the full report and more focused resources (including an executive summary). I'm still reading and likely will have one or more published analyses/response soon. In the meantime, I'll share this resource as one large, national effort to gather information on the status of our boards.

I will offer two observations to help provide context as you read. One, this is a survey of BoardSource members. Two, they surveyed both board chairpersons and CEOs. They gathered responses from both for some but not all questions. Pay attention to who is responding to which question as you read the findings. While the two parties certainly share common goals, their specific roles may color how they evaluate board performance in some areas.

Cultivating Greatness in the Boardroom -- You may click on this link (direct PDF download) and ask yourself, "Why is she asking me to review a non-U.S. study of corporate boards?" There are two reasons. First, corporate or nonprofit, I found the five core characteristics they identified to be valuable assets that should be part of every board's recruitment plan. Second, as with so many other corporate governance-focused studies, they don't forget the impact of group dynamics in the boardroom. The list of "Exceptionally bad NEDs (non-executive directors, a corporate governance term)" is an excellent examples of that sector's recognition that plain old Communication 101 factors matter. Deeply. Read that list (p. 14) and tell me you haven't served on a board with one - or several - of those personalities.

I'll keep this toolbox brief this week, since both resources offer a bit of reading and are worthy of careful reflection. You'll find a lot that will resonate, some elements more so than others, in each resource. What can you take to your own board(s) for discussion? How might that information be used to enhance your own board practice?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Where adults (and nonprofit board members) really learn - The 70:20:10 framework


Where do board members really learn? Chances are good that it's where they probably are learning in other areas of their lives as adults. Chances are even better that it's not where our usual board development efforts are focused.

One of the modes of thinking about adult learning that resonates for me is the 70:20:10 rule, which proposes that 70 percent of the average person's learning comes from experience (informal sources) - actually doing the work, making mistakes, learning from them, etc. Another 20 percent comes from interactions with other people (social) - from peers, mentors, bosses, etc.  The remaining 10 percent (formal) comes from training events and other structured sources. 

Let me make a wild guess here: most of your board's development and capacity building efforts fall in that last number. Mine, too.

The specifics of the 70:20:10 framework is not without critique, but the general notion is borne out in experience and research. Whether or not the numbers shake out at exactly 70:20:10 or some other mix adding up to 100, there is growing consensus that the larger message is true. We learn in a variety of ways, most of them embedded in everyday life and in everyday relationships. Formal events play a very small role.

Charles Jennings' new post, 70:20:10 – Above All Else It’s a Change Agent, states beautifully the ultimate value of recognizing that larger message. He makes the case this way:

Good use of 70:20:10 results in increased focus on supporting effective learning and development within the daily workflow, naturally and at the speed of business – or preferably faster than the speed of business.

Becoming aware of the broader environment where learning takes place and expanding our focus of what's possible is a critical first step and a potential game changer for organizational leaders. What ultimately needs to happen for true transformation? It's a mindset change, Jennings says:

Along with providing a strategy for supporting effective and efficient learning and releasing high performance, 70:20:10 thinking also helps to change and develop mindsets (and change practices). Of course formal away-from-work learning is still necessary to build capability efficiently and effectively in certain situations – especially when people are new to an role or organisation. However we need to think and act more widely than simply changing the delivery channel.

Now, I'm utterly aware that our nonprofit board members are volunteers balancing this work with myriad other life responsibilities. Their time for learning activities in this setting is limited. Ultimately, that means we must make the most of the time we have with them and the time we expect of them.

Steve Trautman frames our responsibilities perfectly in this brief video:


He points specifically to the social learning space, the supportive relationships that foster learning, as a place worthy of attention. He also asks the critical question: how do we think about the entire experiential environment in which people are learning?

In the next post based on the 2015 theme, I'll expand a bit on what each of the 70:20:10 elements might look like in a nonprofit board setting. As I prepare that post, I welcome your thoughts, examples, etc., from your experience.

In the meantime, I'll close with a couple of questions for reflection:

How are our board members learning in their experiences as volunteer leaders?

What kinds of support, from whom, are they receiving from their first day of service with us to their last?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Governance Toolbox: January link love

Keeping it practical, while expanding the pool of resources to nonprofit boards, is the ultimate purpose of this blog. In that spirit, I'm re-launching a weekly feature under a new name: Governance Toolbox.

As the (new) name suggests: the focus will be on sharing resources, tools, ideas and anything else that may offer value to board member readers. Many weeks - like this one - I'll share a group of selected links I found interesting/useful. Some weeks, those link sets will be built around a theme. The toolbox might also highlight a specific resource, or a video, that deserves the spotlight.

Whatever I share will have practical implications for those community leaders who step up to serve. Let's dive in with the first set of tools.

How board members can learn to spot red flags -- Despite the likelihood that a board spends a significant portion of its time in oversight mode, the potential to miss the warning signs indicating trouble. (Speaking from painful experience on this one.) This recent Nonprofit Quarterly article offers important insight into some of the more common reasons for fiduciary blindness.  Of course, regular readers will understand my appreciation for author Kate Barr's recommendation. It all comes down to great questions!

New Year's resolutions for board members -- Most of us have moved past resolution setting mode; but Gail Perry's list is so perfectly positive, balanced and achievable that it deserves additional spotlight time. I appreciate Gail's general perspective on nonprofit boards and her recognition of the very real challenges these volunteer community leaders face during their terms of service. This list reflects Gail's general respect for board members as people who care, who want to succeed in their service, and who also need reminders about the true scope of their work. She does that while also making her resolutions seem infinitely achievable.

What issues should a nonprofit board consider annually --  The focus areas on Gene Takagi's list should be no-brainers for boards, since they represent many of the core activities of nonprofit governance. I appreciate the compilation and Gene's narrative for each because (a) assuming all boards are tending appropriately to each item may be rash and (b) it offers a great addition to a "nonprofit board essentials" toolbox (in fact, I've just added it to my Pinterest board on that topic).

10 questions to ask before joining a board --  Questions! I'm a sucker for this type of list. This one's value lies in the fact that too many new board members ask too few questions ahead of time and end up being blindsided once on the job. They had me with the very first question: "Does the work of that board make your eyes light up?" Passion alone doesn't guarantee a quality board experience. But it's needed fuel, especially when a crisis hits, the routine work gets tedious, and the meetings are long. Does the work I'm being asked to undertake inspire me? Can I see myself making a difference here? Will this be a good use of my precious time? Is this a good fit? That first question is simple but foundational to a productive and fulfilling term of service.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Andragogy in the boardroom: The adult learning needs of nonprofit governing bodies


The best nonprofit board development efforts begin - and end - with acknowledging that they are competent adult learners with common needs and motivations. Unfortunately, too many traditional approaches to preparing boards for their governance responsibilities seem to forget that.

I'll be applying different adult learning theories to nonprofit board development here this year. Before I delve into some of the more unfamiliar components required to build an effective board learning environment, let's take a moment to revisit one of the foundational frameworks of adult learning, Malcolm Knowles' andragogy.

As I discuss andragogy's six components, your likely response will be "This is plain, old common sense." And you're right. It is common sense (it's also simply a guide to good teaching). But it's worthwhile to talk about them in the context of board member learning, to remind us of the value of recognizing and accommodating their strengths and motivations as adult learners. Doing so offers the potential to increase the effectiveness of our board learning events and experiences.

Assumption 1: Adults are increasingly self-directed in their learning. They deserve to know that others respect their independence and their willingness to take responsibility for their decisions and their learning. They also tend to chafe when others attempt to impose from outside, treating them as voiceless entities in decisions affecting their lives. They thrive in environments emphasizing mutual respect, trust and collaborative spirit.

Assumption 2: They come to the table with a rich and deep array of experiences that can be used as learning resources. None of us are true blank slates, especially not the adults serving on our boards. They bring experiences that can be assets in board development efforts. They also need to connect those experiences to what is being learned. That means ditching the set curriculum and creating teachable moments add context and expand understanding by tailoring to what they already know and do. It's also important to state the obvious: not all experience is quality experience. The challenge for my fellow board developers and me: using those experiences as launching pads to connect learners to new ideas, new concepts, and new experiences appropriate to their governance responsibilities.

Assumption 3: They're ready to learn it, when they need to learn it. Adult learners juggle multiple social roles in their daily lives. Nonprofit board members tend to juggle more than their share, as active community volunteers and leaders. They are challenged to meet what is asked of them every day. There is little time, or patience, for learning events that aren't germane to the work before them or to the everyday life challenges that they face. This is a particular challenge for consultants and trainers, who generally are brought in to focus on knowledge needed for a potential future role. Finding ways to connect that information to their existing work, creating teachable moments that create value now, is essential.

This assumption also will play a key role in the case I hope to make for focusing more on performance support in board development than we do now. How do we make what they need to know accessible in the moment that they need to know it? That calls for a different way of thinking - and different structures and resources - than anything to which most boards currently have access.

Assumption 4: Adults are increasingly problem-centered in their approaches to learning and applying what they learn. Closely related to the previous assumption is this one. We adults are more strongly motivated by opportunities to address an issue or problem that we need to solve. Finding ways to make that connection, in ways that are useful (and that help them solve whatever problem lies before them), is an ultimate responsibility of a board developer. 

It also drives board members' independent efforts to seek out and learn from resources that help them understand and resolve the issue themselves. (Remember their tendency to self-direction and their need to know when they need to know.) They will seek out solutions on their own when the motivation is compelling enough. Helping to make those solutions as easy as possible to find and use is a stretch goal for the sector.

Assumption 5: They are driven primarily by internal motivators. This one should be no surprise at all. The motivations we carry within are far more powerful than those imposed by others. That can include requirements set up by an outside source. For example, Wyoming organizations working with domestic violence and sexual assault victims (where I began my governance journey) faced a minimum board training requirement in the early- and mid-1980s from their accrediting body. It also can happen more in more subtle ways within the board, e.g., being told by a fellow board member I need to deepen my knowledge about a topic that I see as germane to the work I'm doing. When we can see the value to our personal growth, job satisfaction, life goals, etc., our motivation increases and our capacity to learn and apply does as well.

Assumption 6: Adults need to understand why they need to learn something before they learn it. You undoubtedly see some overlap between this one and one or two other assumptions, because the similarities do exist. Helping us, as adult learners, see how what we're about to learn will increase their effectiveness as organizational leaders - before we embark on the learning experience - increases our willingness and our potential to grow from that experience. Making the connections with them, between what they already know and do with what they need to know and do, opens their minds and hearts and prepares them for the work ahead. 

I see at least two immediate action points for this one. One, board trainers and facilitators need to clearly articulate how the new fits the existing in laying out the groundwork for what is about to unfold - before we begin whatever learning experience we're leading. Two, asking the board members themselves what they need or want to learn - defining their compelling needs and desires for themselves - does a lot of the work for us on this one. They know why they need to learn something, because they defined it as a learning need.

 I'll close with a few questions for reflection:

In what ways do your existing board development efforts recognize and accommodate the learning needs of the adults at the table? How does that facilitate the learning that takes place?

In what ways do your existing board development efforts add to the learning challenge, within the context of the framework shared here? What one or two changes could you make to enhance the experience for the board members and the effectiveness of the learning that takes place?


NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics. 


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Building responsive nonprofit governance: A shared framework and a few questions


If we brought the "playbook for new success" shared during yesterday's Association for Talent Development Tech Knowledge keynote to our nonprofit sector, what kind of board leadership would we need to ensure that our individual organizations were ready to rise to the challenge?

I was monitoring the ATDTK backchannel during Aaron Dignan's keynote on "Responsive Organizations" when the tweet above popped up. It caught my eye immediately, first, because of the transformative potential it represents. What would be possible if our nonprofits operated on all of these cylinders? The possibilities, indeed, feel endless.

I also recognized that the qualities that make up Dignan's "Responsive Framework" are utterly familiar to the sector and likely the explicit values that drive many of our organizations.

But are our boards on board in that? Do their purposes, goals and values represent these same responsive qualities? Are their structures and processes responsive? Are they set up for responsive leadership?  If not, what can we do to change that?

Since I was following from a distance (Twitter feed from the conference), I'm admittedly short on details from what Dignan shared. But this framework was intriguing enough to share and to invite you to comment - on your experiences, your aspirations for your organizations, your reactions to the elements of his framework.

Does the general notion resonate? What do our boards need to be as responsive as the organizations they lead?

And, because I'm in perpetual "learning" mode (this year and always), what kind of leadership development would be required to build our governing bodies' responsive potential?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Three environments that drive, influence, enhance nonprofit board member learning

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

We all know that nonprofit board members are not blank slates when they arrive at our meetings. We know they carry with them, and draw upon, multiple knowledge sources that shape their thinking and actions. They also are knowledge sources in their own right.

Before leaving Catherine Lombardozzi's excellent resource, Learning Environments by Design (for now), I want to share one more observation that she discusses: the fact that, as adults, board members have three common types of learning environments available to them.

Personal learning environments 


"(A) collection of resources and practices that an individual pulls together to support his or her own learning." A personal learning environment includes a rich mix of people (e.g., peers, professional associations, mentors and coaches) and technology-assisted networks that connect us to colleagues and information resources (websites, organizations, publications, blogs, research reports, portals, etc.).  

Our board members already have their own functional personal learning environments, built over the course of careers and lives well lived, that they can share with us. They may not be continually conscious of those resources. They may use only a fraction of what is available to them in their professional/knowledge areas. But those sources exist and the knowledge they carry within are available whenever we meet as boards We must encourage our volunteer leaders to draw upon all of the knowledge available to them as they interact and deliberate the questions they consider.


Community learning environments


"(B)ased in the interactions among a group of people who have a common domain of practice, who share similar processes, procedures, tools, and approaches...and who generally want to advance their knowledge and practice by interacting with and supporting one another." Lombardozzi offers another label that rings very familiar to me (and likely to many readers): a community of practice. Board members often are part of different professional and personal communities of practice, based on expertise areas and varied interests - all of which may offer some potential value to the boards on which they serve.

But boards themselves also are community learning environments. They have the potential to be high-functioning communities of practice. I've witnessed firsthand the power of an exemplar board operating as stellar community of practice. (I'm also working on a book on this topic.) The bare bones already exist within every nonprofit board. Becoming aware of that, and committing to building board processes and relationships that strengthen that community, strengthens and empowers the board to govern at its peak potential. (I'll be expanding on this notion across the year as part of the 2015 theme for this site.)

Designed learning environments


"(A) deliberately curated collection of learning resources and activities related to a specific learning need." A designed learning environment "can include static resources, human connections, formal learning events, developmental strategies, experiential learning practices, and more." (The five learning components described in the last post play central roles in most designed environments.)

Many board members participate in (and learn from) designed learning environments in their work lives. They already are used to a decent range of tools and processes in expanding their professional development.

Our board development efforts are designed learning environments - at least in name. They include -  but are not limited to - new member orientation, board manuals, training sessions, retreats, and evaluation processes. I am utterly confident that many of your boards enjoy rich, thoughtful, and highly effective designed learning environments. I also hope that you will share your experiences and lessons learned here, in a comment. But call me clairvoyant: I'm predicting that the designed environments supporting most of our boards have much room for growth.

Each nonprofit board will have different learning needs (and opportunities for access to different specific resources). But in general, a typical designed learning environment foundation might include:

  • A process for orienting new board members, including formal event(s), resources, and information support from board and staff.
  • Ongoing access to core documents required to govern (e.g., manuals, bylaws, financial documents, committee reports, minutes), whether hard copy or electronic access (the latter becoming increasingly important to on-demand learning needs).
  • Access to information resources that increase understanding of mission area, board responsibilities and other learning needs (e.g., recommended independent information portals, resources provided by national/state affiliate organizations, subscriptions to electronic and print newsletters and other publications).
  • Opportunities for peer-led learning, preferably embedded in existing meeting agendas.
  • Retreats that include (or even are built around) board learning elements.
  • Organization-supported opportunities to participate in conferences, webinars and other training events.

Awareness of all the learning environment types that Lombardozzi outlines accomplishes at least a couple of things for anyone interested in nonprofit board development. One, it continues the process of expanding our thinking about adult learning. Two, it spotlights the environments that either naturally exist because the board exists (community) or are created to support its existence. (designed) That opens the door to new opportunities - and the responsibility - to completely transform nonprofit board development.

What thoughts come to mind as you consider the learning environments available to you and your boards? What examples can you share of effective elements that support board learning and foster a rich learning environment? What doesn't yet exist that could spark that transformation?

What one step can you and your board take to draw more fully and effectively from the learning environments that you bring into the room?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Providing some context for the year: Why nonprofit board learning environments?


Why is the notion of board learning environments worthy of a year's focus here? What does expanding the concept of nonprofit board learning promise to offer the sector and the volunteer leaders who govern its organizations?

As I've asked myself those same questions, I keep coming back to one simple fact: the individuals serving on our boards are multidimensional human beings with varied interests, knowledge bases, learning preferences, and resources from which to draw. To the extent that we can inspire and support them as learners and leaders, we expand their capacity to govern effectively and increase their satisfaction while doing so.

The unique nature of the nonprofit setting, and the work of governance, require "environments" tailored to those specific needs. Simply dropping a board into one of the emerging "learning environment" frameworks isn't the answer. But we can learn from those perspectives and models as we expand our thinking about how board members really learn.

One of the frameworks that inspires me most at this point comes from Catherine Lombardozzi. As I re-read a sneak peek from her coming book, Learning Environments by Design, last week, I occasionally toyed with saying "Here. Read this." and calling a wrap on the year's theme. It's that good. Instead, I'll launch this adventure by sharing one of the most critical ideas from that preview, her "Learning Environment Components."

These components break down common learning sources available to adults into five key areas:

  • Resources - e.g., books, articles, performance support, pod- and vodcasts, job aids, online databases, wikis, whitepapers.
  • People - e.g., peer networks, expert directories, mentors, social media networks and connections, conferences, personal networks, professional organizations.
  • Training and education - e.g., face-to-face training sessions, online courses, webinars, formal coaching, follow-up activities to reinforce what was learned.
  • Development practices - e.g., action learning, assessment processes and feedback, job rotation and other experiential learning activities.
  • Experiential learning practices - e.g., learning by doing, collaboration, creating notes and job aids, critical reflection.

As you ponder that list, it is important to remember that many of the sources available to your board members right now exist in other areas of their lives. That's both a blessing and a challenge for us: helping members draw from, and share, their existing sources of applicable knowledge while also acknowledging the need for common understandings of what that knowledge means in the specific setting of their work on our boards.

The larger challenge is finding ways to offer that bridge while creating resources and experiences tailored to their specific responsibilities and the context of our missions.

Adult learning is more than the sources available to us. But Catherine does such a marvelous job of reminding us that it's also more than formal learning experiences that I couldn't help opening the year with this core part of her work.

There's a sixth element that I want to point out here: learner motivation. You'll find that underlying the five components, reinforcing the foundational nature that motivation plays in our learning as adults.  We can provide the richest, broadest, most perfect environment and resources to support it; but if we fail to motivate the adults who serve on our boards, we will fall short.

Board members' motivations in this volunteer role likely will vary somewhat from their learning needs as professionals and employees. But their motivations are real nonetheless. We cannot - and will not - neglect board learner motivation in what unfolds from here.

To help start the conversation, and to begin building a sense of what already is available to many of our boards, I invite you to share examples of what these components can/should look like in the context of nonprofit governance.

What types of resources exist for your boards that illustrate Lombardozzi's learning components? What doesn't yet exist but offers transformative potential for board learning? How can Lombardozzi's list help us think as expansively as possible about the needs and opportunities to build our boards' capacities to govern?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.