Monday, March 8, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Mission-focused culture

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 wrap up the series with the eighth point: creating a culture where mission-driving learning can occur.

"Culture" is an inherently fuzzy word: hard to describe, virtually impossible to measure, challenging as a rallying point for engaging board members. But creating and nurturing strong environments where mission-driven learning and communities of practice can flourish - the eighth and final point of my manifesto - may be the most important of all.

Grounding everything must be the mission. The focus of all board inquiry must be its reason for being. Exploration must be based in the ultimate question: How does this move us closer to the mission? Mission is the guiding force and the ultimate test of success. It is unites us in our governance.

With that as the foundation, we can begin to contemplate the factors that contribute to the culture of safety, respect and responsibility that governance requires.

There are the bottom-line safety concerns that such an environment requires. Board members need space to explore without worrying about looking ill-informed or ignorant. Board members need to feel respected and valued for what they bring to the table, even - especially - when what they bring may be considered outside of what everyone else seems to offer.

They deserve to feel like they are part of something greater than themselves and that they are making a difference. They have a responsibility to share their perspectives and their knowledge, in service to that something greater, and know that they will be heard.

New members deserve the chance to become fully immersed in the work of the board from their first days of service and have ready access to the information and experiences that help them become active members and potential leaders. They need to be able - expected - to ask questions that facilitate those processes.

There are the factors that invite creativity and enhance the potential for quality. Board members need opportunities to ask questions and consider issues from multiple sides (including those that may not be so popular on the surface), and tell stories that add context and allow members to learn from organizational history.

They need to be stretched, to be asked to imagine what is the very best we can create together - and use that as the starting point, not the endless list of "resources we don't have..." or "reasons why we can't..."

Boards need to set goals and standards high. They need to communicate those goals and standards to every member, and to the larger community, in ways that inspire others to reach for them.

I'm struggling to come up with a list of bullet points, a clear recipe to follow, as I bring this post and this series to a close. Instead, I will ask a question: what would you add to the starting point I have offered? In your experience, what factors contribute to a governance environment of not just safety, but creativity and richness? How can we foster that kind of environment in the work of the nonprofit boards we serve?

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