Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Meaning-infused

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 3 of that manifesto, nonprofit learning is meaning-infused.

Nonprofits are meaning-making, -perpetuating, -communicating entities. Effective nonprofit learning is necessarily meaning-infused.

Meaning is essentially the reason nonprofits exist. Each organization exists to fulfill a mission. They are, or should be, driven by that mission in everything they do. Ideally, a compelling vision drives that mission-driven work.

Meaning helps nonprofits attract donors and volunteers. We give our time or money because we are attracted to the larger purpose shared with us. A range of motivations connects our deeper personal needs to that mission, but we manage to make those connections. Staff members may have an additional motivator, a paycheck. But they usually stay because they see that what they are doing is making a difference. They see meaning in their work.

Showing us how our engagement moves the organization closer to fulfilling its purpose builds commitment and enhances that meaning. We learn about, and expand upon, that meaning in our interactions and in the places where formal and informal learning takes place.

A key premise of sociocultural learning theory is this: it's about learning to be as much as it is learning about. In connecting us to something bigger than ourselves, nonprofits help us learn to be.

When we understand and embrace the mission, when we learn about the issues we are trying to address, the traditions we perpetuate, the vision of a better future that drives us, we are doing more than learning about them. We are learning to be, finding our place in something bigger than ourselves and building our commitment as that connection deepens. Our own identity expands and enriches as we learn and grow in nonprofit service.

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