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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.