Monday, February 8, 2010

My (draft) NP learning manifesto

Nonprofit learning is my professional destiny in the second chapter of my life. I have experienced it as a participant, as a facilitator and as an adult learning scholar.

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)
  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.
  2. Learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works: in its organizational processes, its work and its community.
  3. Meaning, through an organization's mission, infuses everything and shapes learning possibilities.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Healthy nonprofits create and nurture strong environments where mission-driven learning and communities of practice can flourish.
I trust that readers of this blog, and several of my Twitter friends, will engage me in a conversation that will add clarity to what I am developing here.


Hildy Gottlieb said...

Great stuff, Debra! I hope you'll bear with my own free-form thinking here, as your post has encouraged that!

I'm thinking about the need for an overall culture of learning across the whole sector, beyond the walls of any one organization.

Imagine what it would make possible if funders and consultants and philanthropists and other "experts" didn't see themselves as experts but as learners alongside the organizations they assist.

Charity may be centuries old, but the sector's work today - lifting up the welfare of the whole of our planet - that's pretty new. To assume someone is an expert at such a thing is ludicrous.

So I'm thinking it's important that we all adopt a spirit of learning - and especially learning together and from each other - because in this young and burgeoning field, there is a ton we still don't know.

Thanks so much for this great start to the week!

Bonnie Koenig said...

Excellent! Years ago I remember hearing the adage "Adults learn by doing". Somehow, though, we've lost the important connection between "formal" (courses, workshops) and "informal" (practice) learning. Each is most effective if it's tied to the other.

The framework/culture that we 'create' new or enhance existing learning opportunities should rest again in the important concept of linkage/integration/connectedness. It's been my experience that we are always more effective when we make those holistic connections and then design the component pieces to tie to the greater whole.

Ericka said...

Of course I agree with everything that you said. In trying to let go of my own desire for formal learning, i have realized that what I want to work on ( strive for) is Intentional Learning. Learning that might take place informally or formally but when it happens, we intentionally remember it, dissect it and try to figure out how to do it again.

I realize that i dont want to stand by and watch learning occur or to be content to be a part of the learning process. I want to push it forward in the non profit community in ways that make sense and that can help NP's grow and move their social change forward.

If we all agree that professional development is necessary, then lets stop saying it with an empty meaning and find new and innovative ways to provide it.

niannone said...

I really like where you are going with your manifesto Debra!

Three things stood out for me:
1. The importance of informal learning opportunities that exist in every organization
2. The abundance of skills and experience in staff, volunteers and board that can be shared
3. The importance of time to reflect. Scheduling time for reflection may seem like a luxury, but is essential for focusing on the vision and integrating learning.

Laura Deaton said...

I love where you're headed, Debra! As I read your manifesto, I was reminded of Otto Scharmer's work on Theory U, "presencing," and generative learning. Although it's pretty deep stuff, he fundamentally got to his theory because he realized that the lens through which we act was really very myopic and that we have opportunities to leverage ongoing deep reflection to create different and better futures. Your "aha" about learning and training being different is really similar! One additional thought that I've had that's along the same path: Learning isn't something that we "do," it's part of our very essence and even when not in the spotlight (as it would be at a retreat or training), it is a "program" that's always running in the background. I'm all about questions, so that leaves me with, "How do we leverage continuous and continual learning for the benefit of the sector as a whole?" Can't wait to read more!

Debra said...

What a great gift these early comments are to a mind that has been swirling in these thoughts for far too long. As I reflect (yes, reflect!) on your collected wisdom, I see both affirmation amongst trusted nonprofit colleagues and ideas that bear expansion.

The affirmation that a cultural shift, involving all stakeholders in the sector, rings particularly strong here.

While good things can and should happen at the organizational level, ultimately, it's a much broader canvas upon which this must be painted. Hildy, Bonnie, Ericka,Nancy, and Laura: I see that work advanced in everything that you do 'out there.' I am awed and inspired. Beginning this thought process is, in part, an attempt to make my own contribution that supports your efforts.

The need is great to break free of the notion that only formal learning from outside experts counts as learning. There are so many ways, richer ways, in which we can create and expand our capacity to serve others.

And, yes, reflection is the great, forgotten jewel. Big reflection spaces, like retreats, obviously should be valued. But we need to find in smaller opportunities to reflect within the context and routine of our work. It can be done, in board meetings, staff meetings, etc.

Whew! Why do I feel I've not only provided myself a year's worth of new post topics but truly launched the next phase of my life.

I treasure your individual and combined wisdom.

Debra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debra said...

I wonder: what are the greatest examples you point to as hope that such a cultural shift is possible?

That individual community benefit organizations can embrace and grow their own capacity to learn?

How can I support your work toward this common purpose? How can we create new initiatives to move in that direction?