While the entire community of practice framework offers great value for conceptualizing the work of nonprofit boards, and all three components contribute to its descriptive value, I must admit that I was particularly energized by my findings under the practice umbrella.
Four strong themes arose in the practice data: peer learning, member questions, role clarity and learning resources.
All four add explanatory power, to be sure. I am especially interested in the ways in which the first two on that list – peer learning and member questions – are encouraged in board meetings. Fortunately, the case study board offered vivid examples of both phenomena.
Role clarity. I need to acknowledge this factor before sharing those examples, because it provides the foundation for peer learning. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this series, members entered their service on this board with strong clarity about why they were recruited and how they were expected to contribute to the group.
Most members articulated responsibilities connected to their areas of expertise and knowledge of the organization’s mission area. Some individuals recognized that offering a different perspective on an issue or being able to engage the group in critical thinking advanced the group learning process. Clarity about what they could contribute empowered members to take an active role in board deliberations and learning opportunities.
Peer learning. I identified two roles that members play in peer learning. First is the obvious role, as a board expert on a skill area (e.g., financial management, public relations, human resources) or on the organization’s mission area. While I witnessed multiple examples of board members sharing their expertise in routine board work during the study period, two instances stand out for me.
In the first instance, during time set aside to discuss financial reports, a board member with fund-raising expertise raised concern about the convergence of several factors likely to impact the agency’s capacity to meet community needs. This board member raised issues that others likely already knew – that demand was likely to increase at the same time that access to resources (e.g., grants and individual donations) could decrease. She took the initiative to articulate those strategic challenges, encouraged fellow board members to consider how to anticipate and adapt to a changing environment.
This board member suggested ways to respond proactively within their fund-raising activities, offering examples of steps they could take. Two meetings later, at the board’s request, she led a led an educational discussion focused on the board’s role in cultivation and stewardship of donors. She drew upon her development expertise to introduce several ways in which the board could take a more active role in fund-raising. She then facilitated a discussion ended with a board plan to expand its role in maintaining a strong agency donor base.
The board’s treasurer provided the second example I want to highlight here. During a one-on-one interview, the treasurer and I discussed her concern about the challenges that financial reporting and budget issues pose for many individuals serving on nonprofit governing bodies. Part of the job she accepted as treasurer was helping her peers be get past any fears so that they can embrace their fiduciary responsibilities.
“I try to put myself in the board’s shoes,” she told me. “What is it that’s really important in an oversight role?” Her monthly reports spotlight those critical elements. She also highlights any outliers that may appear to be unusual, offering explanations and recommendations when needed. As one of those board members who lives in perpetual fear of missing something important on the budget front, her leadership of group learning is appreciated and admired.
I mentioned two roles that members play in peer learning. The less obvious role, but also important to effective board deliberations, is that of the non-expert. Members need to be willing to ask questions, challenge “common sense” assumptions often made inside professional areas. They need to be willing to offer other perspectives, from different life experiences and expertise areas, to deliberations. They need to be willing to be naïve questioners in service to the organization. The board I studied provided ample evidence of members’ capacity to play this learning role.
Member questions. Meeting observations yielded several illustrations of how questions posed by board members functioned to direct, clarify, and expand thinking. Observing who asks what types of questions, and how those questions focused board discussions and resulting decisions, was one of the more fascinating and powerful aspects of data collection.
For example, I observed how one member frequently posed questions that prompted the board to consider the importance of including other voices in deliberations. She regularly reminded them of the value of inclusion, often through her strategic use of prompts.
How does this impact our mission? The frequency with which that question was raised in routine board discussions was remarkable (Part three of this series offers an expanded discussion.). Equally remarkable was the way in which that simple but essential question focused the board on its ultimate responsibility, guarding and fulfilling organizational mission.
Governance learning resources. The fourth factor impacting practice focuses on the resources that board members rely upon to understand the work of the organization and their governance responsibilities.
Members referred to two print resources as essential tools, meeting minutes and the written summary of the executive director’s activities between meetings. They described the minutes as important records of organizational history. They described the executive director’s report as a valued resource for understanding agency operations that also helps them use meeting time as effectively as possible.
This board is unusual, because one current member also was part of the nonprofit’s founding group. While most governing bodies do not have that opportunity, it does speak to the importance of having access to organizational history in governance work. Context is not only inevitable in the situated learning of nonprofit boards, it’s essential to making good decisions. Balancing experience through member retention with the fresh perspectives that new members bring to the table helps to foster rich and thoughtful discussions that lead to effective decisions.
Next, I wrap up this series with a few closing thoughts and recommendations.