Monday, March 5, 2012

Elements of a successful board training

What does it take to create a successful nonprofit board training event? How can we structure these events to be more friendly and useful to the adult learners who will attend them? What can we do to increase the likelihood that what they learn will "stick" - that board members will retain and apply the key takeaways that we hope they will take with them?

I'll admit to loving the lecture a little too much in my trainer past - partly because I didn't know better and mostly because I had too much great detail to share (there's always more to say about boards than time). I still teeter, thanks to the latter. As an adult educator, I now know better; and I understand the needs of learners in different ways. I'd like to share a few of those insights and see how closely they reflect your ideal training event.

As much as possible, focus on board members' concerns.  Sometimes, we don't know what we don't know - especially when we're new to a board or an organization. Usually, though, veteran members have a reasonable sense of where their knowledge gaps lie. Ask them: Where are you feeling less confident? What do you need to understand better to govern more effectively? How can we expand your knowledge about our mission area? These are the kinds of questions that should drive your board development agenda. On of the hallmarks of andragogy (a theory of how adults learn) is that we adults are motivated to learn when we need to learn it. The closer we come to anticipating members' burning questions, and addressing them as they arise, the greater the potential that what they learn in our training events will impact board practice.

Theory has its place, but not without context and purpose. Another andragogy hallmark is the premise that we adults need to understand why we need to know something before committing to learn it. Show us why it is important, how it will help us do a better job, how it will help us avoid making costly mistakes. Now, I have a caveat for this one: governance learning should not be theory-free. My recurring frustration with many approaches to describing the work of boards is the "X easy, effort-free ways to..." tone that asks as little as possible of members and explains even less. Governance is a significant leadership commitment and a responsibility with very real consequences. We need to understand the context in which we are working. But drowning board members in disembodied theory only confuses and frustrates most of us.

Give them homework.  One of the simplest additions to the training sessions I facilitate also is one of the most powerful. I give them homework. I share articles related to the topic we'll be discussing. I offer a handful of links - to blog posts, videos and podcasts - that do the same. I assign just enough to spark thinking and alert them to the direction our comparatively brief time together will take. Then, rather than lecture them on the same content, I build the session around discussion about how that reading/viewing applies to their board's specific situation. They are engaged, and they are better prepared to learn during our time together.

Icebreakers aren't torture - if they ease the learning experience. If there's one thing I hate as an adult learner, it's an icebreaker that makes me crawl across the floor to avoid imaginary alligators or do something similarly silly. It's good to have fun, to shake off the cobwebs and prepare us for the work ahead. Find ways to introduce participants in a way that is different but also easing them into the learning process. Relate what you ask - or what you ask them to do - to the work that lies ahead.

...But don't be afraid to have fun.  Learners should have opportunities to get up and move, interact with others, and actively participate in the group's learning experience. Challenge them to try new things; introduce new vehicles for capturing what they are learning and encourage them to share what they are learning with others. Ask them to illustrate what they are learning on flip charts. Role play. Give them a video camera and ask them to record their observations or interview others about the training topic.  Stretch them, but not to the point of breaking, and engage their full range of senses.

Mix presentation of content with ample discussion (and plenty of questions). There's a reason they've asked you to lead this training event. Usually, that something is expertise or content knowledge that they need. (I know: du-uh...) Integrate content delivery with opportunities to ask questions and apply what they are learning to their experiences. Give them the chance to create meaningful linkages to abstract ideas. Offer scenarios and cases to resolve. Ask questions. Respond to their questions. Break into small groups and discuss. Find authentic, active ways to make the learning their own.

Provide access to resources for follow-up. One of the ways I manage that temptation to share everything I know about the topic at hand is creating a handout - hard copy or electronic - that supports the training event. Having ready access to resources that expand their knowledge, or remind them of the details that may not click during the event itself, extends the learning process and increases the potential for retention.

Identify follow-up goals. Before the group disperses, have members identify next steps. Encourage them to outline ways to apply what they have learned to the board's work. Encourage them to be as specific as possible: what, who, how, why, where, when?  Offer to hold them accountable by checking in at a point down the road to see how they are doing, ask whether they have accomplished what they intended, and help them address any unexpected challenges that they are encountering.

Finally (for the board), just act.  If your board members are committing to spend their precious time in a training event, make it worth the effort. Take that list of follow-up tasks and act on them. Incorporate what you have learned into meetings. Identify aspects of the topic where you need additional information or deeper understanding; and assign board members who can act as peer teachers, exploring and sharing what they have learned. Find meaningful ways to improve your governance practice using what you have learned as the foundation.

What makes a quality training experience for you? What factors enhance your capacity to learn in that setting? What facilitates applying what you have learned in your life? What was the best board training you've attended, and what made it memorable?


Terry said...

I believe in lots of time to network. For example, every meal doesn't have to be filled with speakers. Allow the trainees time to talk and share and learn from one another over a meal. I hate when I get back from a conference or training session and every minute was filled with activity and there is no time to get to know your fellow board members and figure out their strengths and special contributions.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

You are a wise, woman, Terry. :) There's a temptation (one I'm always fighting) to cram every available minute with "learning opportunities" or "great information they need to know."

It's something we're always balancing as we plan the Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute: how to create and respect those open spaces where those informal connections can be made and extended.

So important. You're absolutely right about that.

Elizabeth Jennings said...

Awesome and timely, as always, DB! I'm working on a "board ambassadorship" training support document, and it's too heavy on theory and doesn't start with enough of the "why this is important now." Thanks for the reminders.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I love how our minds - and project lists - always seem to run in parallel, Liz. :)

The theory mix is an interesting and challenging one. I like to think of it in terms of context. Formal learning events need to provide context, to help facilitate that "why it's important" linkage that most adult learners need.

Training without that foundation risks being the superficial waste of time that too many of us equate with these kinds of events.

I'm glad this one was of some practical use!