Sunday, October 30, 2011

The 70:20:10 rule of board learning

One of the persistent - and frustrating - refrains of many conversations about nonprofit board development centers on the notion that, if we want more effective outcomes from our governing bodies, we must plop them down in a room with an expert for training.

The faulty assumption is that boards can only learn if (a) they are called together for a formal training event and (b) that experience is led by an all-knowing instructor who will pour all of the "right" answers into their heads. When that is accomplished, poof. Our boards will miraculously get their act together, achieve some governance perfection, and stop holding us back.

It may sound good in theory, but there's just one problem: not only is it not how most adults actually learn, it's not even the way they learn best. As an adult educator, I know that formal learning experiences have a role in board development. But in assuming that training events are the pinnacle of learning for nonprofit boards (or any group of adults, for that matter), we overlook and undervalue the myriad ways in which they actually are learning. If we expand our understanding of how adults learn, we open new opportunities to engage boards in meaningful learning that changes their practice.

In an earlier "overheard" favorite links post, I referenced the 70:20:10 framework of learning, which draws on research about the role of informal adult learning. In a nutshell, the 70:20:10 model says that
  • 70 percent of what adults learn comes through experience and real-life situations, e.g., through project-based work, collaborating with others, trying new things, practicing more advanced skills, etc.
  • 20 percent of what we learn comes through others, e.g., mentoring, debriefing, networking, discussion, and team tasks.
  • 10 percent comes from formal learning events, e.g., workshops/training, e-learning, and games-based learning.
(For an excellent overview of the 70:20:10 framework, visit this Slideshare presentation by Charles Jennings.)

What would the 70:20:10 look like for the average nonprofit board? Where do our boards already spend 70 percent of their informal learning (and how might they do so more effectively?)? What does the 20 percent learned from others look like? How might we leverage that interaction to the board's benefit? Naturally, I have a few ideas - and I'd appreciate your thoughts on other ways to recognize board learning in all of its forms.

70 percent learning by engaging in real situations
  • The board needs real, meaningful opportunities to engage in governing - meetings centered on asking the big questions, with space to make important decisions about the future of the agency, engaging the community on behalf of your organization, etc. 
  • The board has appropriate opportunities to experience the work of the agency, to see your mission in action. That might include such activities as tours or visits to your site (with sensitivity to client confidentiality), volunteering that puts them into close contact with front-line work, participating in outreach events - any opportunity to appropriately build their knowledge of the work that you do and the impact that you have in the community.
  • Board members should be engaged in committee and other team-based work that draws upon their expertise and interests and deepens their contributions to the agency and fulfilling its mission.
  • They need challenging new assignments that stretch them: formal and informal leadership roles, exploratory assignments, and increasingly challenging projects that build their governance muscles.
 20 percent learning from others
  • New board members should be assigned a veteran mentor, who helps them understand the culture and work of the group and who provides a ready resource for asking naive questions.
  • Whether or not they have designated peer support, they learn by sitting in meetings and observing how things really work: how members interact, how questions are asked and by whom, how disagreements are handled, etc.
  • The board, and individual board members, should have a range of joint and collective self-assessment opportunities throughout the year, e.g., setting and monitoring board goals, debrief sessions following completion of projects, post-meeting check-ins (How did we do tonight? How did we advance the mission? Where did we struggle?).
  • The board needs regular, open, mission-focused discussions in meetings and other work settings. They need opportunities to hear and understand a range of perspectives on important issues (which reinforces the need for having diverse voices and experiences in the boardroom).
  • They benefit from the chance to network with others who are engaged in nonprofit governance and/or who are engaged in the same issues as your nonprofit's mission.
 10 percent learning via structured learning events
  • New members begin their formal learning experience via high-quality orientations that address not only the mission, programs and structure of the nonprofit, but also their governance responsibilities.
  • Board members can, and do, learn from attending workshops and conferences focused on topics that expand their knowledge of your mission and their governance roles.
  • Formal face-to-face events designed to expand their understanding of specific mission areas, your programs, and/or governance have a place in board development
  • Webinars and other distance-delivered training events offer other opportunities to expand board learning.
What am I missing? In what other ways can - and do - boards learn beyond formal events?  How would boards interact differently if they understood the role of informal learning? How might boards benefit - and how would their impact change - if they were more cognizant of how they shape their own learning in their routine governance work?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Finding the nobility in governance

My apologies for the major gap between posts. After fairly major surgery in August, the journey to a fully functioning brain (and productive keyboard) has been surprisingly tough. I'm back, not quite at 100 percent, but anxious to re-engage with lovers of nonprofit boards - especially readers of this blog. 

I may not have been prepared to write about boards, but I've certainly been thinking about them. The one thing I could do during my sick leave was read, and I saw connections to nonprofit governance in every book and article I picked up. (Some call it a sickness...)

One common (and distressing) theme that ran through much of my nonprofit reading was an old one: surviving the million-plus ways that our boards fail us. Woven throughout the blog posts, industry reports and articles was the familiar refrain:
Our boards are a liability. They shirk their responsibilities (IF they know what those responsibilities are). They fail to follow through on anything. They hate planning and resist learning about our work. They suck all of the executive’s valuable time away from higher priorities. We must hold them accountable. They have to be managed. WHY do we have them????
Sound familiar? Okay, I’ll admit I’ve seen and heard my share of evidence confirming  most of those complaints. I’ve undoubtedly contributed to that evidence as a board member. But I'm not about to lay all of the blame on boards and the good-hearted, committed leaders who serve on them.

As I read each of these treatises on overcoming bad boards, I couldn’t help asking myself a few questions:
  • What are we doing to ensure that our boards will have the greatest potential for success in fulfilling their responsibilities?
  • What messages are we inadvertently conveying to boards about our (low) expectations for them?
  • How are we setting them up for failure?
  • Who in their right mind would sign up for such a thankless, mind-numbing job (especially when everyone expects them to fail)?

My friend, Hildy Gottlieb, would encourage me to ask a different kind of question:
What would happen if we expected something better from our boards - and we helped them reach for that potential?
In the spirit of answering Hildy’s persistent whisper ringing in my ears – and to provide a counterpoint to the other conversation – I’d like to offer a different set of questions:

  • What if we treated boards, and the community leaders who serve on them, with the respect they deserve?
  • What if we created an environment where we assumed they would lead – and we helped them reach that leadership potential?
  • What if we held up nonprofit governance as visionary leadership?
  • What if we helped focus their work on the big questions of governance?

Obviously, these questions beg for different outcomes by boards. But they also require a shift in thinking – and action – by those who support them. To me, some of the most obvious changes required would be:

  • Access to information about what governance actually involves. Too many boards don’t have a clue what they should be doing. That's a sector problem, as much as it is an organizational issue.
  • Clarity about what they are signing up for before new board members commit to serve. That means providing them with realistic, concise, information about expectations up front and asking for informed commitment to the role they are assuming. (And never, ever, uttering the words, "It won't take that much time...")
  • Agendas dominated by open time to ask the big questions, focusing on governance work. We are not making the best use of our boards' time when we drown them in endless reports and minutiae.
  • Treating individual and collective reflection as an asset, not a waste of time.
  • Building the CEO/board partnership and seeing it as a worthwhile investment, not a burden.
  • Embedded celebration of what they contribute – their leadership – to the organization and the community.
  • Respect for their time, connections and expertise. Nonprofit governance is a noble calling, one that depends upon committed community servants to embrace the future and move us closer to it. The contributions of a high-functioning board are unique and irreplaceable.

There are myriad ways to improve nonprofit governance. There is vast room for growth between most boards’ current performance and their full potential. We have a lot of work to do. But we must be careful to acknowledge our joint accountability for supporting our boards in their effort to govern more effectively. We're all responsible for our boards' success. They can't do it alone.

We also need to take great care to avoid disparaging the significant gifts that board members contribute, and the commitment they bring in support of our missions. We must recognize, and support, the nobility of their service and the community transformation that is possible when they succeed.