Sunday, May 1, 2011

Significant board learning

What does "significant" board learning look like? There are myriad ways of responding to this question, infinite lenses that could be applied. 

Most of the lenses I choose come from adult learning theory, some bigger stretches than others. Applying Dee Fink's "Taxonomy of Significant Learning" is such a stretch (the original focus is on college level courses), but its elements obviously carry over to other settings - including the nonprofit boardroom. Following are my thoughts about how Fink's model might help us think more expansively about board development.

Learning how to learn
  • Board members take the time to figure out, collectively, what they need to know to govern - about governance generally and about the mission and issue areas addressed by the organization. 
  • Members take the initiative for identifying and fulfilling their governance learning needs. They do not wait for the executive director and others to spoon feed information to them or tell them what they need to know.
  • They identify the resources - types and content - that they require to govern effectively.
Foundational knowledge
  • Board members gather the knowledge needed and use it in appropriate ways (e.g., increasing effectiveness of decisions made).
  • The board and organization find workable ways to archive knowledge and make it accessible to current and future members.
  • Board members learn how to apply what they and others know to the practice of governance. This includes not only what they learn together through formal training events, but also their individual expertise and the tacit and informal learning that takes place in board work.
  • They develop and exercise the capacity to identify and address the big questions of governance.
  • They use what they know strategically and in the spirit of accountability.
  • Board members have the capacity to make connections between ideas and their combined potential to create something better/different.
  • Boards reach out to people with different perspectives and experiences, with the organization's mission and vision as their common ground.
Human dimension
  • Boards have the capacity to recognize the strengths and blind spots within.
  • They have the ability to learn from and with others, especially those who think differently about things then they do.
  • They have the capacity to work as a team, focusing on the mission and vision.
  • "Caring" - about whatever our missions might be - is the essence of the nonprofit sector. Governance begins with connecting deeply to the vision, mission and values of the organization.
  • Grounding deliberations with basic compassion and empathy for those served, and those who serve, will seldom lead to faulty decisions (yes, even acknowledging the need for accountability and the often tough choices boards must make).
  • Boards are willing to deal up front with the human side of governance, even the messy interpersonal aspects of group work.
Whether or not the fit of model to environment is perfect or wise in this case, the process of exploring board development in different ways is healthy for nonprofit governance. What can we learn about how boards learn, or how boards could learn, from Fink's taxonomy?

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