Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Respect expertise

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 7 of that manifesto, acknowledging and valuing the expertise in the room.

Whether strategically designed or by accident, your board members already bring to the table a range of skills and experiences that can be drawn upon to enhance their governance capacity.

"Skills" can be profession-defined, e.g., legal, public relations, financial management. They also can be mission-defined. For example, a nonprofit free clinic would benefit from having physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and other medical professionals with deep knowledge that is directly connected to their mission area.

They also may be experiential. For example, you may have a board member who has led fund-raising efforts in other nonprofit settings and understands the importance of the board's role in donor cultivation and stewardship. You may have a retired volunteer, who brings both knowledge of the front-line challenges and the deepened passion for mission that comes from service.

Do you know what expertise exists in your boardroom? Are you drawing upon that expertise in ways that inform decision making and encourage broad thinking before a vote? Are you engaging individual members in ways that communicate their contributions are valued?

One of the more noteworthy discoveries in my dissertation case study was the board's approach to ensuring that the needed expertise was only in the room, and that it was used when and where it was needed to make the best decisions possible.

This board had clarity about what types of expertise and perspectives were needed to make the kinds of decisions that would advance the agency's mission and ensure effective use of its resources. They knew up front what needs existed, before they generated names of prospects, and they used those criteria to begin identifying appropriate nominees. It wasn't the only criterion, but it was a foundational one.

Equally important, and striking to me, was the clarity with which members could describe what they were expected to bring to discussions. That was communicated in the recruitment process, meaning they knew what their individual leadership expectations were when they accepted the invitation to serve.

Their example shouldn't be noteworthy. It should be an obvious case of "the way everyone does it." But we all know better. If we've been in this work long enough, we've seen too many "any live body will do" scrambles to simply fill a vacancy at the last minute.

It's not enough to simply have the knowledge in the room. It's also absolutely critical to name that expertise, to regularly and authentically acknowledge individual members' contributions to the process, to group learning, and to effective governance. It is important to value those contributions, and to recognize them as leadership that advances the mission.


Ericka said...

I love this idea of identifying and utilizing the types of expertise and then advocating using them. Seems to make sense, and yet we are in the weeds so often, we forget to do that 35, 000 ft analysis.

Debra said...

You know, this one felt too obvious to merit discussion, Ericka. But you're right. So often, we're so immersed in the work that we can miss what should be obvious. Also, I think there is a tendency to revere 'experts' when the same wisdom is right there in our midst.

Acknowledging the riches within, and using them in service to the mission, is one of the most important steps we can take as a board. It's also one of the most important ways to learn and advance our own capacity to govern.