Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Informal board learning: Some sources

We know that nonprofit boards need a wider range of information than is typically available in the average meeting packet, and we know that most of what adults learn comes informally rather than in trainings and orientations.

Where are the logical access points for seeking that knowledge when needed? Different boards, with different missions, will have varying needs and opportunities. But there are some likely starting points for many of us. What follows are some options I’ve used and heard of other boards accessing. I trust that readers will have additional resources from which board members can draw.

Boards have two general categories of learning needs: their nonprofit’s mission area (e.g., children and youth, homelessness, senior citizen services) and their governance responsibilities. My recommendations cover one or both of those categories.

Your organization’s national/international headquarters. If your nonprofit is an affiliate of a larger organization (e.g., United Way, American Red Cross), your headquarters may offer a wide array of resources to inform and guide. One of the few things I appreciated about the larger Komen organization was the wealth of resources – about the mission area (breast cancer) and affiliate operations – made available to board members and staff. The weekly electronic newsletter for affiliate leaders was an additional support. If you are part of a larger entity, you probably have a range of informational supports from which you can draw.

Other organizations that address the same issues. I served on two boards for organizations that provided crisis intervention services for sexual assault and domestic violence victims (and community education programs addressing those issues). Today, those boards have ready access to information from national organizations like the National Coalition against Domestic Violence and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Some of those resources also may be local or regional in focus, or similar organizations that operate in nearby cities or nonprofits that address other aspects of a larger issue that you address (for example, a local free clinic and a nonprofit providing reproductive health services will have many parallel concerns).

Blogs in your mission area or that address nonprofit/governance topics.
In addition to providing access to the latest information and thinking about their chosen topics, most blogs make keeping up with those new developments easy, via email subscriptions and RSS feeds that bring new posts to you. Some of your sister or national organizations also may have blogs that will be of value to you.

Your friendly neighborhood search engine. This one may be too obvious to include, but it’s worth a reminder. There’s a wealth of resources to access on any topic you may want to explore. Not all of those sources are of equal quality or value to what you need at the moment; but it’s worth a look, especially when you’re not sure where to start or not finding what you’re seeking in the logical places.

Google alerts. Related to the search option is the availability of alerts: specifying a word or phrase for which Google will be in perpetual search mode. Not all of the websites will appeal; but you’re undoubtedly encounter an occasional gem, delivered directly to your email inbox. I have three ongoing alerts operating through Google, including one for “nonprofit governance.” Inevitably, those alerts draw attention to resources from sites otherwise not on my radar.

Local nonprofit networking communities/events.
If your community has opportunities to interact with representatives from other organizations, or that provides face to face learning events (much like our Laramie Governance Roundtable, a peer network for local boards), take advantage of that option. It can be a great way to learn more about challenges other boards are facing, approaches to addressing those problems, common ground and collaboration opportunities, and otherwise gaining a broader view of governance and of community issues. If such a peer network doesn’t exist in your community, consider starting one. One's peers often are the most powerful learning resources for any adult.

Your state nonprofit association or the National Council of Nonprofits. Not all states have a nonprofit association (at the moment, Wyoming is without an organization of this type); but those that do offer a range of resources, from downloadable how to documents to links to other helpers, to technical assistance to training sessions. The National Council of Nonprofits (where you can search easily for your state organization) provides similar information and services on a larger scale. Both can be incredibly valuable sources of support and information for your nonprofit and its board.

Local/state/regional/national nonprofit conferences.  Events like our Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, a professional development conference for sector staff and volunteers, offer rich opportunities to learn, formally and informally, via the spontaneous networking and note-sharing that takes place. As volunteers, board members don't always feel like they have the time to participate in events that require stepping away from work for a day or two. But when they do, they will find great spaces for discovering new ways of thinking about their work. Feedback from board members who have attended SRNI tells me that the informal conversations between sessions are at least as valuable - in many ways more so - than what they pick up in the formal workshops.

Twitter. If you're not already on Twitter, this suggestion may feel a tad out of the blue. But bear with me. When speaking about this particular tool, I've often said that, if you only create a profile and follow smart people and organizations talking about topics that interest you, it's worth the effort. Readers who love Twitter know that's a terribly narrow view of a powerful networking tool. But you also know what I mean. Follow the profiles that are focused on your topics of interest, and you'll inevitably encounter a cornucopia of links to resources you might never have found in other settings. You'll encounter ideas that will stretch your imagination. And you'll meet incredibly knowledgeable people who become part of your personal learning network. Search Twitter for topics of interest and find not only references to information and resources but people and organizations to follow. Join a Twitter chat targeting your mission area and participate in a real-time learning experience.

Though long, this list represents just a subset of places and spaces where nonprofit boards can go to educate themselves about the important issues of their mission area. They represent a few paths to follow to learn about how to govern more effectively and enhance your group skills.

What would you add to this list, either specific sites or types of resources?


Treysons said...

You can learn a lot about a non profit by inviting the outgoing or current President or Chair out to lunch. I love informal learning from peers!

fontgoddess said...

Read the organization's constitution and bylaws or whatever founding/governance documents it has. This should be standard, but it's surprising how many people never do it.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Great additions, Trey and Emily! Thanks for posting them here. What I like about both is the fact that they're immediately accessible and directly linked to one's service on that particular board.

Trey, thanks for the peer learning connection. Such power is available in those informal opportunities to engage and explore.

Emily, I uttered both an "of course!" and "wouldn't that surprise many..." when I read your comment. I'm thinking about how often I've been in boardrooms (and my own brain) where "now, *what* do our bylaws say about..." is the burning question.

Appreciate your recommendations on this!