Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Context-driven

On Feb. 8, I shared my draft nonprofit learning manifesto, eight premises about how adults learn and, specifically, how adults working and volunteering in the sector learn. Today, I discuss point 2 of that manifesto, learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works.

If you've worked in the sector long enough, you've probably not only encountered the term "best practices," you've likely seen well-articulated lists of approaches to the work that, if followed, virtually guarantee greater effectiveness in our work and in the outcomes for which we are accountable.

There is value in any discussion that focuses our attention on increased effectiveness in our practice and in our use of the resources under our stewardship. There is value in learning from others, not only in avoiding their mistakes but in exploring what has worked well in other settings that may be applied or adapted to our organization.

But the truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nonprofit management, leadership, or learning. Our communities are unique. Our processes and structures are unique. Our opportunities and challenges are unique. And our people certainly are unique. Our capacity for success - and the learning that needs to take place to increase that capacity - is shaped by the environment in which we work.

For example, in our home community (Laramie, Wyoming):
  • We have three post-secondary education institutions, each bringing populations of students that share both common and unique needs. Most of our nonprofits serve student populations in some way and many rely upon student volunteers. Each organization that engages one or more of these student populations must be prepared to do so, addressing not only factors they have in common but also the unique issues that each group faces.
  • We have a generous community of supporters that respond when called for help. But we have few potential, ongoing sources of major gifts - corporate, family or other. This impacts the ways in which we engage our financial supporters and creates opportunities for growing a broad, extremely loyal citizen base. But most of us must build that financial support (comparatively) small gift by small gift.
  • We have a workforce that is strong and highly educated, but also transient. Laramie's nonprofits have access to expertise and energy, and a responsibility to engage them in support of our respective missions. But we know that a significant portion of that educated population, especially University of Wyoming employees and students, is transient. Long-term board and volunteer relationships are hard to develop, because people move on to new life adventures. Finding ways to learn from and with them, while always cultivating new pools of volunteer resources, is especially critical here.
  • While we're one of the larger cities in Wyoming, we're still largely a rural economy and a rural population. Many of our clients are rural residents, with needs that city residents simply do not face. We also lack ready access to nonprofit centers and other resources that nonprofits in many urban areas take for granted. Isolation, even while working side by side in service to clients, is a real issue.
  • Because we are a university community, we also experience challenges of a more cosmopolitan nature. UW draws students from several nations, and many of them bring families to live and learn in the community while they are here. This means that nonprofits who serve international students and their families must be constantly aware of potential cultural challenge to serving them and be willing and ready to adapt in appropriate ways.
Even within this community context, each of our organizations serves a unique mission with a unique mix of human, financial and capital resources and needs. We may identify common needs to help our organizations reach their full potential. But the simple fact is, none of our organizational realities are identical. Our learning needs are similarly unique, even as we identify common ground.

What is the context in which your nonprofit operates, whether here in Laramie or elsewhere? How does that context shape both the content and the format in which learning takes place? How is your board addressing its own learning needs?

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