When most of us hear the word "learning" in a nonprofit setting, we tend to think of training events, conferences and other formal experiences set up to expand our knowledge. We "learn something" in the presence of an acknowledged expert -- with some obligatory small group discussion, if the presenter understands the need for "active learning." We may attend these events with a co-worker or fellow board member, but they are individual learning opportunities. The knowledge comes home in our heads, where it may stay unless we find ways to share it with others.
I've attended many of these events. I've presented countless versions of these events. I co-founded and coordinate one of those events in my home state. Formal learning has its place in the nonprofit sector. But if we confine our conception of learning to this definition, we miss opportunities to recognize, value and enhance its existence in all forms.
We learn, alone and together, in everyday nonprofit life. Learning takes place in many forms, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we identify them as such. For example, learning takes place in these settings:
- In the interactions with clients, volunteers, and donors. We learn what they need/want from us, what they think of us, what they share with others while talking about us.
- In the data we gather, for ourselves and others, that tell us how we're doing, who we're serving, and how healthy we are as an organization.
- In the reports shared at board meetings - from the executive director, other staff members, our committees - that add depth of detail on operations, governance responsibilities and community outreach.
- In reading the materials shared in advance of board meetings to facilitate informed discussions and high-quality decisions.
- In participation in events and milestones of organizational life. We learn by celebrating our history, our accomplishments, our vision of the future.
I have a few thoughts about ways in which nonprofit boards might move in this direction:
- Get new board members off to a good start. Consciously create strong orientation processes, beginning before an invitation to join is accepted. Invite prospects to attend meetings to learn more about your organization and the board itself, to help ensure a good fit. Once a new member joins, have a comprehensive orientation process in place that includes a formal learning opportunity (face-to-face, if possible), supporting material (e.g., a board handbook) to add detail and provide a reference to which the new member can return, and a veteran board member mentor to help navigate the early months.
- Provide ready access to board materials, useful data, reports, etc. In an earlier post, I described working with a friend in Boston who established a wiki for the board of her new nonprofit. It is proving to be a comprehensive, user-friendly resource that is readily available to board members whenever it is needed. For the board member who simply needs to know now, and needs quick access to needed detail, it's great. For the board member who resists piles of paper, it's even better.
- Create regular opportunities to learn about the mission, beyond an annual retreat or formal board development events. (Yes, they are part of the mix.) For example, devote parts of your regular meetings to brief reports and discussions about topics critical to your governance responsibilities - understanding the environment in which your organization operates and the impacts that challenge successful operations, or learning more about donors and exploring how to best match their interests to your needs.
- Honor and learn from member expertise and experiences. This includes not only the obvious - relying on your CPA member to help you wade through the monthly financial reports, for example - but the less-than-obvious. Honor the critical thinker who encourages you to not take the easy route to a decision. Engage the member who has deep ties to the business community and shares concerns and positive feedback from that stakeholder group. Resources that build board capacity come in many forms.
- Create regular time to breathe and to reflect as a group: Where have we advanced the mission? What are our challenges? How can we be even more effective as leaders of this organization?