Monday, November 28, 2011

Embedded board learning: Part 1

Your board realizes it needs to commit more fully to its own development. Members accept that learning can take place outside of formal training events. They want to make better use of their time at meetings, not only talking about big issues but learning from and with each other.

Now, how do they actually do it?

When I've written about board learning this year, it's been primarily within the context of the natural processes that are already taking place - learning whether or not we realize we are learning. We already know about the role, or at least the potential, of formal board development events. But there's a middle ground: brief opportunities to embed learning within meetings, that not only expand member knowledge for making good decisions, but engage them as active participants in the process.

I know what you're thinking: "But we don't have time for anything else. Our meetings are too crowded as it is..." My counterpoint would be twofold:
  • If your agenda is like too many others, you have plenty of time. It's just taken up by long, verbal staff and committee reports; approvals of items that should be handled via consent agenda; and drawn-out conversations about details that are management's responsibility.
  • Assuming they address the right topics, these brief (10-30 minutes) events will accomplish two things: focus the board on where it should be - governance - and increase its capacity to do so effectively.
I've come up with eight examples of embedded board learning activities that I will describe in two posts. Part two will appear here on Wednesday.

Charge each member with sharing some aspect of his/her expertise (program, professional, etc.) with the board at least once a year.  Ideally, individuals know exactly why they were recruited and what knowledge or perspective they are are asked to contribute, and they are doing so regularly. But I'm thinking of something slightly more formal: asking each member to lead brief information sharing events. For example, I served on a board of an organization that provides reproductive health services, where members provided these peer learning opportunities. More than a decade later, I still remember a 15-minute overview of emerging contraceptive technologies that the physician member of the board developed and shared with us. Yes, a staff person probably could have created a similar overview. But it was different, for our physician peer and for us, because we engaged him and he engaged us. He also expanded our collective understanding of a program-related topic, in a small sliver of meeting time.

Events of this type need not be dog-and-pony-show presentations. A member could lead a discussion about a topic related to the agency's mission area or their governance responsibilities, that builds their understanding and encourages them to think more broadly about their work as a board. For example, a retired development officer, who served on the board I studied for my dissertation, facilitated a discussion in that group about the board's fundraising roles. A board member also could share informed thoughts about how to strengthen the agency or board and facilitate a group conversation that encourages deeper discussion (and learning) about their work and their responsibilities.

Ask each board committee to take turns leading focused discussions related to board and agency capacity. This one is similar to the first, but led by your committees. Ask them to not just report on existing activities, but to facilitate a discussion looking toward the future. It could be focused on organizational goals in their area (e.g., how to build more effective relationships with donors that lead to meeting fundraising targets), or on how to build the board's capacity to succeed.

These also could be broader discussions about the environment in which the agency works. What are the emerging challenges? The potential opportunities to collaborate with others? The expansion areas to consider? What are the new developments we should be discovering? What are the best practices that we should be evaluating? These discussions should increase member awareness and engage them in focused, deep learning and visioning.

Share a reading or a link to a video in advance of the meeting and spend 10 minutes discussing it.  It should to meet one of the board's two learning needs: about your mission area or about nonprofit governance. Set aside some time - early in the meeting - for sharing their reactions to the selection, and for connecting the key insights with their work as a governing body.

You know your board best. They may be readers. Or they may prefer to watch and respond to a short, high-quality video, like 501Video's marvelous "Movie Monday" selections (example here).  Whatever is shared, it should cover something beyond the everyday and challenge them to think expansively about your work and their role in your success. You also should expect them to come prepared to respond. The notion that board members are "too busy" to read an article or watch a five-minute video, to expand their knowledge and serve you better, is absurd.

Hold a board debate. Select a topic that needs divergent thinking and thorough deliberation before a major decision is required. Set up a 30-minute debate covering the various sides of the issue. Assign sides to a subset of your board, charging each with investigating, presenting and "defending" one option. Chances are good that you have at least one former debate team member on board who can help you develop some basic rules for engagement. Because I have a devilish streak, I might be tempted to assign members with particularly entrenched views on the topic to defend the opposite position.

The value of this exercise includes: reducing the risk of easy consensus, because different options are being brought into the discussion; making it not only okay to hold a contrary view, but a requirement that someone offer that alternative viewpoint; and making board members active participants in at least one well-researched, deep discussion (among many, we hope) about major topics impacting your vision and mission.

I'll post the second half of this list on Wednesday. Not all of these ideas will appeal to every board. They aren't intended to do so. But if one or two spark your board's interest and can be incorporated in some workable way, the potential to transform your meetings (and your members) and expand the board's capacity to govern more effectively is large.

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