Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nonprofits: Never not learning

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 launch a series expanding upon each point.

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.
Learning is everywhere in nonprofit life. How much power could be gained if we were aware of the myriad ways it occurs and treated each as a chance to build commitment and capacity?

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?
Next, I will discuss the second point of my manifesto: "Learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works."


Ericka said...

I love the concrete to do's that you listed. I think that you are on to something and that we have to do more to encourage people to expand their learning. Good job!

Maureen Carruthers said...

I love this list. As a staff member it is easy to get frustrated with board members and volunteers who don't live up to our expectations--forgetting that we learn all day long with access to the whole picture of the organization.

You've given great advice here on how to give board members what they need to be successful.

Debra said...

Thanks, Ericka and Maureen, for your comments on this post! My focus, both for this series and for the blog more generally, is to keep it practical and on what time-stretched board members can use for greater effectiveness.

I'm particularly excited about this series, because it's the most direct connection so far between the sector that I love and adult learning theory has so much to offer our organizations. Post 2 will be up soon.

Maureen, I'm glad that you acknowledged the depth of knowledge that exists within your staff. While the board too often looks to the outside for information and guidance, the best source is within the organization's walls. On the other end of that continuum, our board members bring expertise, connections and other contributions that are so critical to success.

We lose something important if we don't find ways to share all of the available knowledge available to us.

As Ericka knows so well - because we talk about it all the time on Twitter - learning is, indeed, social!

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Debra --

Many thanks for this great post. I led a board planning retreat Saturday (the second one I've done for this organization). At the end of a productive day of conversation and decision-making, one long-time board member recalled the first time we had gotten together to do this, "We all said why do we need a retreat?" he recalled, "We can see now how much we benefited from that retreat, that this retreat was just the most natural thing to do." He cited being able to get away from the day-to-day to gain perspective on their progress as a real advantage of a retreat.

My new goal is to encourage this group to gather together every year for review and reflection. It's can be such a positive learning (and learning about self) experience.


Maureen Carruthers said...

@Anne I do love a retreat--and I think they are essential for just the reasons you mentioned. I also don't think yearly renewal is enough. There would be real leverage in creating ways for weekly (or even daily!) renewal in our organizations. Obviously not full retreats--but reminders to step back and make sure we are still doing what we say we want to be doing.

Debra said...

Ah, retreats. They are wonderful (when we give them realistic expectations) and so energizing when they are successful (for example, when the goal is not to "write a strategic plan").

I've always felt that they should be valued (and wisely used) components of a larger learning environment. Having that extended space for breathing and reflecting is so necessary to organizational/board renewal.

There are so many other opportunities for regular opportunities for reflective practice that I don't think we acknowledge, or feel we have the liberty to take amongst action-packed agendas.

Why, oh why, is that (favorite) topic so far down my manifesto list?!? :)