I've been immersed in the topic academically for more than five years. I've written a dissertation on one specific phenomenon under the larger umbrella (boards as communities of practice). But the questions driving me to this point go back decades. The larger purpose behind my quest has been this: to move past the overly narrow "training=learning" definition within the sector and open up new opportunities for growth.
Because I've explored nonprofit learning from so many different practical and theoretical perspectives, I've struggled a bit to articulate a starting point for what I believe and what I know to be true. Today, I begin to move forward with this very much draft manifesto that is the foundation of my thinking and my future work in this area.
(Note: While the following points apply to nonprofits generally, they all fit board learning specifically.)
Debra's Nonprofit Learning Manifesto (Draft 1)
- Nonprofits -- their staff, boards and volunteers -- are never not learning. Learning takes place in daily activities, conversations, information generated and shared, decisions made. Recognizing it, valuing it, and facilitating it is critical.
- Learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works: in its organizational processes, its work and its community.
- Meaning, through an organization's mission, infuses everything and shapes learning possibilities.
- Formal learning events (e.g., workshops, classes, presentations) have a place, but they are only part of the learning journey. They are not necessarily the most effective places for learning.
- Adults learn in different ways. Events and processes that engage different modes of thinking increase the likelihood that true learning will take place. Daily nonprofit life is already filled with such opportunities. Making the most of them as places of learning is important.
- Time to reflect is absolutely essential, and too often left out of nonprofit life. (That's the ultimate role for retreats.) Building in reflection time should be a high priority for boards, staff and volunteers.
- Nonprofits already have significant expertise that should be recognized and put to use for mission. Staff members, volunteers and boards members bring knowledge, skills and experiences that create capacity to reach its vision. Identifying and using what already exists, and recruiting to expand internal resources, increases that capacity.
- Healthy nonprofits create and nurture strong environments where mission-driven learning and communities of practice can flourish.