Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nonprofit learning: More than training

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.

Let me state up front: I am not anti-training. Formal learning opportunities play an important role in the community benefit sector. They help orient us to new work and new organizations. They provide forums for learning about mission, the issues impacting it, and the work in which we are mutually engaged.

But too often in the sector, “training” is equated with “all learning.” That in no way reflects reality. Our learning is far richer, far more diverse, and frequently far more effective in other forms. It takes place in our interactions, our decision-making processes, our data created and shared, our joint reflections, and our mutual experiences.

Since breaking the “learning=training” mindset is the ultimate purpose of my manifesto, and I’m describing a broader vision of how the sector learns in this series, I will not use this post to rehash what is covered in detail elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to talk about two formal learning experiences in my life that I hold up as highly effective. I will describe the factors that made them memorable and life/practice changing.

The first experience took place 27 years ago next month – victim advocate training for the Sheridan, Wyoming, Women’s Center. That it stands out more than a quarter-century after the fact says a lot about its effectiveness as a learning experience.

The second event took place last month – the Community-Driven Institute (CDI) consulting immersion course in Tucson. I am just beginning that journey; but the fact that it is a journey rather than a one-time, quick shot of information helps me predict that it has the same potential for being utterly transformative.

These two experiences share six factors that I consider to be essential to effective formal learning.

They extended across time. They were not “fill your heads in two quick hours” experiences. In the case of the advocate training, a small cohort of potential volunteers gathered over a weekend to explore not only facts and figures about rape and domestic violence but also their impacts in depth. That increased our understanding in critical ways. My CDI experience was a week long immersion in an approach to consulting that was simultaneously familiar and totally new.

They offered extended opportunities to practice. With my peers in the advocate training, I practiced the crisis intervention skills we would use if we committed to sign on as volunteers. While we would be mere rookies at the end of training, we had some level of confidence that we would be ready when the first call came. My CDI peers and I had multiple opportunities to practice facilitation skills from a new frame of thinking. We took turns acting as facilitators and participants, experiencing how the community-driven approach feels from both perspectives. Accompanying those practice sessions were regular opportunities to reflect on what felt good, on what was uncomfortable, and on how we predicted the potential for changing our practice when we returned home.

They explored topics in depth. Obviously, experiences that spanned days provided opportunities to dig deeply into the topics we were exploring, in ways that quick, one-shot sessions can never accomplish. Before we left each experience, we already had a better-than-superficial understanding of what we came to learn.

They provided resources in easy to use formats, for later reference. When participants left both experiences, we didn’t have to worry about keeping everything sorted in our heads. We had well-organized resources that we could access whenever we needed them. Participants in both sessions received hard copy notebooks containing tools and information. We explored those resources while we were together (which gave us context and a chance to ask about anything that was unclear). Both sets of resources were immensely helpful in the days and weeks that followed, whenever I needed to recall something that had not yet become part of my routine. In the case of CDI, we also have an online library accessible from our keyboards.

They provided extended support after the event ended. We weren’t left to dog-paddle solo through our first attempts to apply what we learned. We had support. When I took my first calls as a victim advocate, I debriefed with a Women’s Center staff member. When I met with my first clients as a victim advocate, a Women’s Center staffer accompanied me. I’m new to the CDI community, so I’m just beginning to experience the support available to me. But what support I have! First, each class has an online space, provided by the Community-Driven Institute, where we can privately build upon relationships established in Tucson. We also interact via monthly teleconference calls, giving us a chance to hear each other’s voices once again, deepen connections, and extend our joint learning in a safe and familiar environment.

We joined a larger community after our training ended. My fellow victim advocate volunteers and I met monthly to discuss tricky cases, offer advice, and encourage each other. We had a ready peer support network, which was critical to sustaining our motivation amidst difficult work. The Community-Driven Institute Ning (social networking) community presents all graduates with an instant community. In that space, members share insights, stories, and resources that help to enhance our individual practices. I not only have space to continue my learning journey with the three members of my own class, I became linked instantly to the broader network of individuals engaged in the community-driven approach to consulting. I learn from them every time I log into that community and engage in conversation or read their posts.

There is room for formal learning experiences of all types and lengths in the community benefit sector. Enhancing those experiences in the ways I’ve just described increases their potential for success.

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