Given my passion for all things governance, the decision to explore some aspect of how nonprofit boards learn for my dissertation research was an obvious one. How to find a meaningful focus within such a broad and virtually untouched topic would be my test.
Very little energy to date has been spent trying to learn what boards need to understand their responsibilities, use information and otherwise learn to be as effective as possible. Any insight would move the discussion forward and provide something potentially useful to the sector. Any question I chose to explore would make a contribution.
As a trainer and adult educator, I know that formal learning experiences contribute to s board development. But as a veteran board member, I also know that workshops and retreats offer only a sliver of an opportunity to introduce new ideas, tools and information. Translating them into action afterwards is difficult at best. Boards learn. Most of their learning occurs somewhere else.
I believed I knew that “somewhere else.” I thought I might have idea of how learning occurs there. But I needed to set aside my assumptions and explore the question with an open mind.
The place? Regular board meetings. The how? Routine interactions and deliberations that make up board work. That became my starting point.
The question driving my research was this:
How do preparation for, and participation in, nonprofit board meetings impact board members’ ability to engage in generative governance?
I needed to immerse myself in a board environment as an observer, to see how and where learning might take place within a meeting setting. I needed to have a chance to interview board members, to ask them about what I had seen, and to probe them for insights into their challenges, motivations and successes. I needed to conduct a case study to uncover and analyze potential answers to my research question,
The board with which I’d spend several months couldn’t struggle with the basic responsibilities of governance. It needed to take those roles in stride and, if I was lucky, would engage in a truly interesting example of board learning from which I could learn before the research ended. I had one must-ask local board. Fortunately, members said yes. Even more fortunate: this board not only offered vivid examples of not only learning during effective governance, it demonstrated learning in the process of truly exemplary governance.
The Research Process
Research was a multi-phase process. I observed several consecutive board meetings. I conducted two focus groups, to ground myself in what members considered to be important regarding some foundational questions I hoped to explore. I conducted a content analysis of the key documents and sources that members use in governance work. Finally, I interviewed every individual board member and the agency’s executive director. Each data gathering experience added new layers of information to analyze.
Next: The theory behind the research.