Monday, February 21, 2011

What does a nonprofit board know?

What types of knowledge does a board member need to govern effectively? What types of knowledge do individual members bring to the boardroom? What kind of knowledge does a smart, focused group of people generate when it gets together?

Some types of knowledge may come easily to mind as you consider those questions. For example, we all generally have some kind of expert knowledge that made us attractive to the board when it recruited us to serve. If we don’t have some kind of understanding of what boards do when we join, we certainly will develop a working concept of the task at hand. We may read up on board responsibilities or attend a training event that provides that necessary overview.

But the scope of knowledge needed and used in governance work – and in our daily lives – is far broader than those that are immediately visible. This weekend, as I was reading on another topic, I ran across a familiar taxonomy of knowledge. As usual, even in a different context, I couldn’t help reflecting on how it applies to nonprofit governance. What follows are brief descriptions of each knowledge type and some basic thoughts about what they might look like in your boardoom.

The source for this version was Changing Practices of Doctoral Education (Boud & Lee, Eds.), but similar frameworks exist elsewhere.

Types of Knowledge

Abstract propositional or declarative knowledge – facts, theories, concepts, etc. We need knowledge related to our organization’s mission area, both within the agency itself and within the larger environment in which it works (For example, a homeless shelter needs to understand both homelessness in its service area and the broader issues of homelessness nationally). We must understand the environment in which the organization operates, generated from a variety of sources. Under this category I also would place our theories about nonprofit governance, including the scope of board member responsibilities and the ultimate leadership contributions to be made through the work. Often, what we "know" about boards comes from experiences serving on other boards: Boards "govern," some boards are "working boards," boards are "community leaders," boards are "fundraisers," etc.

Abstract procedural knowledge - conceptual and cognitive skills that facilitate actions like analysis and problem solving. It helps us explain things, too. We have, or develop through experience, some pretty specific (and occasionally dysfunctional) ideas about how boards work and how they make decisions. We set up procedures and processes that we believe will facilitate that work. I also would place here our individual approaches to problem solving and decision making. How do I analyze the issues we’re discussing, and how does my method complement or conflict with yours? How do our combined frameworks impact the way in which the group evaluates the evidence and ultimately makes the right decisions for the organization? How do they challenge that?

Action knowledge – interpersonal communication, performance and psychomotor skills. The ways in which we interact with each other immediately comes to mind. Is the boardroom a respectful and collegial one? Do we have the capacity to not only “handle” conflict but to engage it in ways that ultimately draw us to unexpected and more effective governance?

Tacit or habitual knowledge - “expert practice and professional judgment.” Each of us brings our specific expertise to the boardroom table and, hopefully, will share openly whether or not someone has asked us to do so. Some of that knowledge is easy to identify and articulate. But even more of it comes from within and may not be consciously accessible to us. It’s still there, and it will emerge if the environment allows us to be ourselves and encourages us to contribute openly.

Cultural understandings of others’ perspectives and experiences - our ability to empathize and work with others that allows us to develop shared understandings. This is where the value of recruiting a diverse board comes into play. Bringing different voices to board discussions creates the potential to develop shared understandings and a richer base from which to make decisions. But that’s only a start. We also must individually carry the capacity to not just “tolerate” frames of thinking that are different than ours but to open our minds to what is shared so that we can hear and even embrace worldviews that may challenge our ideas about how things are done. We not only make higher-quality decisions in governance, we may end up being individually transformed in the process.

Embedded knowledge - routines and procedures, driven by tools and technologies. I see these as the structures and supports that we take for granted, the ways in which boards “do” things and communicate with each other. They are found in the formal processes and in the informal culture. As such, they can sometimes be incredibly challenging to identify and to change if it is deemed necessary. Among the processes that are visible and may be open to alteration would be organizational by-laws, policies and codes of conduct that describe and prescribe governance practices.

While this is not the only typology of knowledge, it is one that makes sense to me as an adult educator. It offers enough breadth to stretch our thinking about what and how a nonprofit knows, and that is healthy. Raising our boards' awareness of the riches available to them, and increasing clarity about the sources of what they know, can only enhance their capacity to think as a group and make the right decisions for their organizations and their communities.


How might you use such a framework for talking about the knowledge available to your board? What stereotype(s) might you help bust in the process?

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