Sunday, March 14, 2010

Moving beyond 101

Recently, a friend and I engaged in a brief exchange about the perpetual need for '101'-level, basic information and training experiences in the nonprofit sector.

We agreed on one indisputable fact: that need exists and it is, indeed, perpetual. We will never get to the point where everyone has all of this - governance, fund-raising, volunteer management, etc. - figured out. That day will never come.

My friend and I don't disagree - on this and most things nonprofit. But this brief discussion hit a nerve for me, which is connected to my vision for the sector in our state and our community:
We must move beyond '101.'
In saying this, I am not denying the need to make available basic information about nonprofit management and leadership. Those needs are real and legitimate. However, we need to go a step further. We need to go several steps further.

One of the most obvious reasons that '101' needs continue to exist is the often high turnover in nonprofit organizations and their boards. A significant percentage of that turnover is within our power to impact.

We leave our organizations because we burn out. The work is hard, the hours are long, the toolbox is empty. We don't have the resources we need to succeed. We lack access to processes, examples, and knowledge to take the next step toward our mission.

We don't know what comes after the 101.

We rely on the same old - basic - approaches that are never meant to lead us to mission fulfillment. So guess what: we never get there. Instead, we spin our wheels, dog paddle through the days, and wonder why we never get any closer to the horizon.

There is another turnover factor over which we have control. That perpetual '101' focus is boring. We burn out our boards (and our staff and volunteers) because they can't see the impact of their efforts. We gravitate toward nonprofit work because we want to be part of the drive to the horizon - we want to make a difference, even if we know our specific part of that effort is measured in inches rather than the miles needed to get there.

We leave because the '101' focus asks very little of our minds. Once we figure out the "10 basic board responsibilities" (if we learn about them at all), we're seldom asked to really stretch in service to our mission. We're not asked to become the community leaders that nonprofit boards are intended to be.

Boards recruit smart, creative, inspired, driven people to serve. Then we drown them in trivia and tasks that put them to sleep. Not that some of those tasks aren't part of those basic responsibilities. But when that's all we ask of our board members, we waste vast amounts of talent. And we burn them out.

This doesn't mean that we ignore those legitimate needs for '101' learning opportunities and resources. It also doesn't mean that we stretch people to the point of breaking - beyond their capabilities, knowledge and interest.

What does mean is nudging, encouraging, inspiring them to find the power to move closer to the vision of a better future that we share and the mission that draws each of us to the work.

It means expecting more than '101'-level work: encouraging and supporting as we embrace growth, develop new capacities, and fill our toolboxes. It means supporting our boards (and our staff and volunteers) when they succeed in that growth. It means supporting them when they stumble in the learning process. It means focusing the lens on that better future and the mission-defined path that we have laid out.

People want to be engaged. They want to be part of something better. They want to learn. They want to not be bored. They want to be partners in success.

They - we - need more than 101.

As the Albany County Boards Initiative moves forward, we undoubtedly will find strong expressed needs for basic board development opportunities. We will work to address those needs in accessible (and, hopefully, more creative) ways. But you can expect me to be up front, asking us as a community to stretch in healthy ways - in ways that move us closer to the strongest, healthiest, most vibrant Laramie that we can create. Making sure we build beyond the 101 - and providing our boards with the experiences and resources to do that - is my special part of this process.

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