Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Space for reflection


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 6 of that manifesto, building in time for reflection.

“Creating space for amazing things to happen…”

It’s obvious that this particular statement from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb, resonated during my recent trip to Tucson: it appears on nearly every other page in the journal I kept during class.

Apparently, that was a message that I needed to reinforce, not only in the journey upon which I was embarking with the Community-Driven Institute, but in my life as a teacher, scholar and community catalyst.

As I was preparing to discuss point 6 of my learning manifesto, the need to create and value time for reflection, this phrase came to mind. It is point 6. Creating a reflective practice in nonprofit life generally, and governance specifically, is creating the space for those amazing things to emerge in our interactions and our work.

Typical board routines are not built with that space in mind. Busy people gather around a table to hear reports and vote on a never-ending list of decisions to be made, all while fretting about what they may not be monitoring as closely as they should. Does that sound vaguely familiar? In the press to accomplish everything within the one, two or three hours set aside for the meeting, there is seldom time to sit back, breathe, and reflect as a group.

What would happen if we created that space and valued it as part of our governance responsibility?

  • What if we used retreats as opportunities to engage and reflect on our vision of what is possible and our role in making it happen, rather than a mad dash to write a strategic plan?
  • What if we committed to providing individual board members with the information they need in a timely manner that gave them opportunities to read, explore, research and ask questions before they arrived at the meeting to vote?
  • What if we banned opening packets at the boardroom table and created the expectation that members come prepared to discuss fully and deeply what was on the agenda?
  • What if we both allowed ourselves all the time we needed to truly explore the issues behind our decisions as a group? What if we welcomed the devil’s advocate and the person who encouraged us to think critically about all of the mission impacts before a vote is taken?
  • What if we interwove within each meeting agenda space to ask questions that engage us in reflection and generative thinking?

I’ve long encouraged boards to take at least this basic step - asking at the end of each meeting:

How did we advance our mission today?

That’s not a bad way to tippy toe a board into reflective practice. But there is so much more potential than what that one question can capture.

I love the trio of questions that Hildy offers up in a post titled “3 Questions to Create Visionary Boards,” because they invite the reader and his/her board to focus where the future needs them, at a level of depth where they can truly become catalytic in their work. I also love the suggestions she offers for making this part of the board’s work process. I’d encourage you to read that post and consider how you might either adopt Hildy’s recommendations directly or adapt to fit your board’s needs?

Whether or not we think we have the time, our boards need the space to do the amazing things they are charged with doing. We must not only make space in the agenda for reflective practice, we must value it and build from it.

We must see generative work as equally critical to the fiduciary and strategic responsibilities of governance. We must engage board members that may be bored or feeling uninspired by the necessary-but-mundane tasks that keep us focused on whatever lies immediately before us.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Adults learn in different ways

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 5 of that manifesto, adults learn in different ways.

The fact that adults learn in different ways should be self-evident. We probably know it. We may even practice it in other areas of our lives. But do we structure our board work as if it were true?

There are different ways of framing the differences between your learning style and mine. One that I find useful is Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The name identifies the premise: humans have different ways of demonstrating and using intelligence, far broader than the typical, singular definition that usually comes to mind. Gardner identified seven types of intelligence in the early 1980s:
  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence
He later added an intelligence, naturalist, bringing the total to eight.

We tend to build the board agenda around linguistic intelligence. Meetings involve words - a lot of words - via verbal and written reports and discussions leading to decisions. We obviously can't avoid engaging linguistic intelligence in board work. But if that is the only mode of working, we only fully engage some of our members. Others are unable to make the most of their talents.

What if I am a board member who absorbs and analyzes information visually? What am I possibly missing if the only way I experience information essential to governance is via the written or spoken word? How likely am I to be fully engaged in the work if I am constantly asked to think and act outside of my comfort zone?

Perhaps I have strong intrapersonal intelligence: a strong intuition that I need to explore and trust. How likely am I to give you the best I have to offer if I am never given the space to reflect on the issues at hand, to access the wisdom that is within before reaching a decision?

Maybe my dominant intelligence is interpersonal: I am at my most creative and effective when I am able to mix things up with my fellow board members in rich and occasionally raucous debates. Do I have those opportunities; or am I forced to listen to endless reports, with my participation confined to "aye" or "nay?"

Must all board work take place around a conference room table? What opportunities do you have to engage me if I'm a kinesthetic learner? What are you missing as a board if I'm expected to sit, immobile, in a chair that is uncomfortable and perhaps too big for me? Will I be able to give you my best?

Whether or not you find multiple intelligences illuminating, the takeaway is this: as learners, we take in and process information differently. To be fully effective and productive, governance experiences must engage all of the learners and leaders in the room. How can you structure governance work to ignite those different ways of thinking and acting in service to your mission?

How does your board already do this?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nonprofit learning: More than training

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 3 of that manifesto, nonprofit learning is meaning-infused.

Let me state up front: I am not anti-training. Formal learning opportunities play an important role in the community benefit sector. They help orient us to new work and new organizations. They provide forums for learning about mission, the issues impacting it, and the work in which we are mutually engaged.

But too often in the sector, “training” is equated with “all learning.” That in no way reflects reality. Our learning is far richer, far more diverse, and frequently far more effective in other forms. It takes place in our interactions, our decision-making processes, our data created and shared, our joint reflections, and our mutual experiences.

Since breaking the “learning=training” mindset is the ultimate purpose of my manifesto, and I’m describing a broader vision of how the sector learns in this series, I will not use this post to rehash what is covered in detail elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to talk about two formal learning experiences in my life that I hold up as highly effective. I will describe the factors that made them memorable and life/practice changing.

The first experience took place 27 years ago next month – victim advocate training for the Sheridan, Wyoming, Women’s Center. That it stands out more than a quarter-century after the fact says a lot about its effectiveness as a learning experience.

The second event took place last month – the Community-Driven Institute (CDI) consulting immersion course in Tucson. I am just beginning that journey; but the fact that it is a journey rather than a one-time, quick shot of information helps me predict that it has the same potential for being utterly transformative.

These two experiences share six factors that I consider to be essential to effective formal learning.

They extended across time. They were not “fill your heads in two quick hours” experiences. In the case of the advocate training, a small cohort of potential volunteers gathered over a weekend to explore not only facts and figures about rape and domestic violence but also their impacts in depth. That increased our understanding in critical ways. My CDI experience was a week long immersion in an approach to consulting that was simultaneously familiar and totally new.

They offered extended opportunities to practice. With my peers in the advocate training, I practiced the crisis intervention skills we would use if we committed to sign on as volunteers. While we would be mere rookies at the end of training, we had some level of confidence that we would be ready when the first call came. My CDI peers and I had multiple opportunities to practice facilitation skills from a new frame of thinking. We took turns acting as facilitators and participants, experiencing how the community-driven approach feels from both perspectives. Accompanying those practice sessions were regular opportunities to reflect on what felt good, on what was uncomfortable, and on how we predicted the potential for changing our practice when we returned home.

They explored topics in depth. Obviously, experiences that spanned days provided opportunities to dig deeply into the topics we were exploring, in ways that quick, one-shot sessions can never accomplish. Before we left each experience, we already had a better-than-superficial understanding of what we came to learn.

They provided resources in easy to use formats, for later reference. When participants left both experiences, we didn’t have to worry about keeping everything sorted in our heads. We had well-organized resources that we could access whenever we needed them. Participants in both sessions received hard copy notebooks containing tools and information. We explored those resources while we were together (which gave us context and a chance to ask about anything that was unclear). Both sets of resources were immensely helpful in the days and weeks that followed, whenever I needed to recall something that had not yet become part of my routine. In the case of CDI, we also have an online library accessible from our keyboards.

They provided extended support after the event ended. We weren’t left to dog-paddle solo through our first attempts to apply what we learned. We had support. When I took my first calls as a victim advocate, I debriefed with a Women’s Center staff member. When I met with my first clients as a victim advocate, a Women’s Center staffer accompanied me. I’m new to the CDI community, so I’m just beginning to experience the support available to me. But what support I have! First, each class has an online space, provided by the Community-Driven Institute, where we can privately build upon relationships established in Tucson. We also interact via monthly teleconference calls, giving us a chance to hear each other’s voices once again, deepen connections, and extend our joint learning in a safe and familiar environment.

We joined a larger community after our training ended. My fellow victim advocate volunteers and I met monthly to discuss tricky cases, offer advice, and encourage each other. We had a ready peer support network, which was critical to sustaining our motivation amidst difficult work. The Community-Driven Institute Ning (social networking) community presents all graduates with an instant community. In that space, members share insights, stories, and resources that help to enhance our individual practices. I not only have space to continue my learning journey with the three members of my own class, I became linked instantly to the broader network of individuals engaged in the community-driven approach to consulting. I learn from them every time I log into that community and engage in conversation or read their posts.

There is room for formal learning experiences of all types and lengths in the community benefit sector. Enhancing those experiences in the ways I’ve just described increases their potential for success.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Meaning-infused

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 3 of that manifesto, nonprofit learning is meaning-infused.

Nonprofits are meaning-making, -perpetuating, -communicating entities. Effective nonprofit learning is necessarily meaning-infused.

Meaning is essentially the reason nonprofits exist. Each organization exists to fulfill a mission. They are, or should be, driven by that mission in everything they do. Ideally, a compelling vision drives that mission-driven work.

Meaning helps nonprofits attract donors and volunteers. We give our time or money because we are attracted to the larger purpose shared with us. A range of motivations connects our deeper personal needs to that mission, but we manage to make those connections. Staff members may have an additional motivator, a paycheck. But they usually stay because they see that what they are doing is making a difference. They see meaning in their work.

Showing us how our engagement moves the organization closer to fulfilling its purpose builds commitment and enhances that meaning. We learn about, and expand upon, that meaning in our interactions and in the places where formal and informal learning takes place.

A key premise of sociocultural learning theory is this: it's about learning to be as much as it is learning about. In connecting us to something bigger than ourselves, nonprofits help us learn to be.

When we understand and embrace the mission, when we learn about the issues we are trying to address, the traditions we perpetuate, the vision of a better future that drives us, we are doing more than learning about them. We are learning to be, finding our place in something bigger than ourselves and building our commitment as that connection deepens. Our own identity expands and enriches as we learn and grow in nonprofit service.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Context-driven

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 2 of that manifesto, learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works.

If you've worked in the sector long enough, you've probably not only encountered the term "best practices," you've likely seen well-articulated lists of approaches to the work that, if followed, virtually guarantee greater effectiveness in our work and in the outcomes for which we are accountable.

There is value in any discussion that focuses our attention on increased effectiveness in our practice and in our use of the resources under our stewardship. There is value in learning from others, not only in avoiding their mistakes but in exploring what has worked well in other settings that may be applied or adapted to our organization.

But the truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nonprofit management, leadership, or learning. Our communities are unique. Our processes and structures are unique. Our opportunities and challenges are unique. And our people certainly are unique. Our capacity for success - and the learning that needs to take place to increase that capacity - is shaped by the environment in which we work.

For example, in our home community (Laramie, Wyoming):
  • We have three post-secondary education institutions, each bringing populations of students that share both common and unique needs. Most of our nonprofits serve student populations in some way and many rely upon student volunteers. Each organization that engages one or more of these student populations must be prepared to do so, addressing not only factors they have in common but also the unique issues that each group faces.
  • We have a generous community of supporters that respond when called for help. But we have few potential, ongoing sources of major gifts - corporate, family or other. This impacts the ways in which we engage our financial supporters and creates opportunities for growing a broad, extremely loyal citizen base. But most of us must build that financial support (comparatively) small gift by small gift.
  • We have a workforce that is strong and highly educated, but also transient. Laramie's nonprofits have access to expertise and energy, and a responsibility to engage them in support of our respective missions. But we know that a significant portion of that educated population, especially University of Wyoming employees and students, is transient. Long-term board and volunteer relationships are hard to develop, because people move on to new life adventures. Finding ways to learn from and with them, while always cultivating new pools of volunteer resources, is especially critical here.
  • While we're one of the larger cities in Wyoming, we're still largely a rural economy and a rural population. Many of our clients are rural residents, with needs that city residents simply do not face. We also lack ready access to nonprofit centers and other resources that nonprofits in many urban areas take for granted. Isolation, even while working side by side in service to clients, is a real issue.
  • Because we are a university community, we also experience challenges of a more cosmopolitan nature. UW draws students from several nations, and many of them bring families to live and learn in the community while they are here. This means that nonprofits who serve international students and their families must be constantly aware of potential cultural challenge to serving them and be willing and ready to adapt in appropriate ways.
Even within this community context, each of our organizations serves a unique mission with a unique mix of human, financial and capital resources and needs. We may identify common needs to help our organizations reach their full potential. But the simple fact is, none of our organizational realities are identical. Our learning needs are similarly unique, even as we identify common ground.

What is the context in which your nonprofit operates, whether here in Laramie or elsewhere? How does that context shape both the content and the format in which learning takes place? How is your board addressing its own learning needs?

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."

Monday, February 8, 2010

My (draft) NP learning manifesto

Nonprofit learning is my professional destiny in the second chapter of my life. I have experienced it as a participant, as a facilitator and as an adult learning scholar.

I've been immersed in the topic academically for more than five years. I've written a dissertation on one specific phenomenon under the larger umbrella (boards as communities of practice). But the questions driving me to this point go back decades. The larger purpose behind my quest has been this: to move past the overly narrow "training=learning" definition within the sector and open up new opportunities for growth.

Because I've explored nonprofit learning from so many different practical and theoretical perspectives, I've struggled a bit to articulate a starting point for what I believe and what I know to be true. Today, I begin to move forward with this very much draft manifesto that is the foundation of my thinking and my future work in this area.

(Note: While the following points apply to nonprofits generally, they all fit board learning specifically.)

Debra's Nonprofit Learning Manifesto (Draft 1)
  1. Nonprofits -- their staff, boards and volunteers -- are never not learning. Learning takes place in daily activities, conversations, information generated and shared, decisions made. Recognizing it, valuing it, and facilitating it is critical.
  2. Learning is situated in the context in which a nonprofit works: in its organizational processes, its work and its community.
  3. Meaning, through an organization's mission, infuses everything and shapes learning possibilities.
  4. Formal learning events (e.g., workshops, classes, presentations) have a place, but they are only part of the learning journey. They are not necessarily the most effective places for learning.
  5. Adults learn in different ways. Events and processes that engage different modes of thinking increase the likelihood that true learning will take place. Daily nonprofit life is already filled with such opportunities. Making the most of them as places of learning is important.
  6. Time to reflect is absolutely essential, and too often left out of nonprofit life. (That's the ultimate role for retreats.) Building in reflection time should be a high priority for boards, staff and volunteers.
  7. Nonprofits already have significant expertise that should be recognized and put to use for mission. Staff members, volunteers and boards members bring knowledge, skills and experiences that create capacity to reach its vision. Identifying and using what already exists, and recruiting to expand internal resources, increases that capacity.
  8. Healthy nonprofits create and nurture strong environments where mission-driven learning and communities of practice can flourish.
I trust that readers of this blog, and several of my Twitter friends, will engage me in a conversation that will add clarity to what I am developing here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Taking time for mission

My Facebook status this morning reads, "Debra Baker Beck is fine-tuning plans for a mission-focused day with her favorite board in the world this week. Great things guaranteed!"

I always leap at the chance to work with this particular board. There are myriad reasons, but the major motivators are these:
  • It understands the need to step back periodically, away from the routine of governance, to focus on the future. This is an annual event, an essential part of board life.
  • Board members are masters of governance. The 'routine' from which they are stepping away is focused where boards should be focused: the agency's future, the support it needs to advance its mission, and its impact on the community. (I know. I spent several months observing meetings and interviewing members during my dissertation research.)
  • Because they are clear about the board's ultimate role, when they do step away from the regular work, they have a good sense of how they want to spend special times like this retreat. Mission, mission, mission: that was the theme tying together all of the issues they want to cover this week.
My task is to help them immerse in the mission, both the ways in which they can move ever closer to fulfilling it and in recognizing the potential challenges they may encounter.

I loved hearing that at least one board member is concerned about the potential for mission creep. Trust me. A board that is aware of the challenge of spreading its organizational resources too thin is a rare and wonderful thing. It's also in a position to ensure that mission creep will not be an issue in the future.

I've led and participated in scores of board retreats, enough to know that they are (a) not always welcomed with enthusiasm, (b) not always set up for effective use of board member time, and (c) frequently not used to guide future action. Nothing changes: the organization and the community it serves aren't better off because they met.

This board continues to exemplify how governance should work. It recognizes the importance of retreat time (and makes a point to schedule it); it enters the experience with a clear, mission-driven purpose of what they want to accomplish; and it will use the results drive its work for the next year. (I can virtually guarantee that. Our community has tangible evidence of action taken following one of their recent retreats.)

Does your board set aside time regularly to explore? To think about the future? To decide how to focus your leadership and energy for the future? If the answers are yes, how is your nonprofit better off? How is your community better off?

If the answers are no, what are the primary obstacles? What would it take to provide quality time to focus on your leadership role, on the organization's future, and on impacting your community? Where can you find that time? Will you make the time?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Interstate nonprofit capacity lessons

Late yesterday afternoon, my Twitter feed brought an unexpected gift: a link to a report on nonprofit capacity building needs in Washington state, produced by The Giving Practice and shared by Whatcom Counts, an amazing resource (directed by an old Laramie friend Liz Jennings, familiar to many in our local nonprofit community).

While the report itself (An Assessment of Capacity Building in Washington State, available for download here) obviously describes the needs of another western state, the take-home message should resonate for both our local nonprofit community and Wyoming's nonprofit sector as well. The authors' "eight essential elements of a resilient nonprofit ecosystem" stopped me in my tracks as I read them, immediately connecting to what I both know and believe to be true about our own nonprofit environment.

You'll find them listed on page 6 of the PDF file (published page 2, in the executive summary), but let me pull out the description for you:
  1. "An ongoing source of nonprofit board and management basics or "Nonprofit 101"...
  2. "The availability of in-depth organizational assistance...
  3. "Ongoing ways to surface, educate and sustain leadership...
  4. "Trusted information and referral resources for 'just-in-time' needs...
  5. "A community infrastructure that supports volunteerism...
  6. "The capacity to use technology in pursuit of mission...
  7. "Organizing and advocacy capacity...
  8. "A healthy funding and fundraising climate..."
While those elements emerged from research somewhere else, they should ring true to anyone working in the sector - especially to those of us in Wyoming and, specifically, Albany County.

We have areas of local strength and distinct areas of local need. It is my hope that the nonprofit boards initiative that I am developing with a group of colleagues working in the sector will play a lead role in addressing some of these capacity needs, especially numbers 1 and 3 on the list. My individual passions also lie in supporting number 6, as I've seen and participated in incredibly powerful examples of organizing and learning via social media.

As you read that list, what arises for you as most critical to the needs of our local nonprofit community? To your specific organization? What is your initial response to the list itself? If we were to conduct a similar study in Wyoming, or in Albany County, would we find the same results? I am interested in your reactions, via a comment to this post, and in sparking a conversation about the capacity needs of our own nonprofit environment.