Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Making emotional connections to enhance, extend nonprofit board learning

What needs to happen to trigger actual, meaningful change from board learning events and experiences?

I'm perpetually seeking different perspectives on that question, particularly as I continue my own development as an adult educator. Recently, as I was reading Dan Spalding's book, How to Teach Adults, I encountered a quote that I believe sums up a core challenge that we face in this setting:

"I believe the primary challenge to transfer is emotional. Unless you teach in prison, whatever your students are doing in life is working for them. They're functional and comfortable - and that means they're comfortable with their own limits."

Now, that's not personally newsworthy. It fits what I know in my gut to be true (and fits years of understanding from doctoral-level adult education study). But the way Spalding framed it resonated in a way that made the potential connection to the average nonprofit boardroom - and board training event - especially vivid.

Too often, we schedule a board training because that's what we do this time of year. Or "we" bring in an expert to "fix" some board problem that "we" see - whether or not the board also recognizes it. Sometimes board members acknowledge an issue, at least intellectually. But there's one key obstacle between what happens in the training and applying what is shared there: the sense of urgency - the emotional need - to change.

The fact is, even if we're not exactly operating at peak levels - and we know it - we board members can be quite comfortable with the status quo. The cost of committing to learning and to implementing a different way of working may be just a step too far for busy volunteers. Especially if we're getting along - somehow - with the way we've always done it.

How do we get around that? Well, one path is the painful one: we're in crisis because "the way we've always done it" broke down and got us into trouble. Then we have to find a different way.

But is that an optimal environment for identifying and committing to positive, future-oriented changes? Not usually.

I keep coming back to two things, familiar to regular readers:

One, we need to recognize that learning is embedded in everything we do, move beyond the "board development=formal training" mindset, and structure our meetings and other governance work to make the most of those opportunities.

Two, we need to move away from a skills gap/deficit focus in board development to motivating, engaging, and building the collective leadership capacities of the community volunteers who serve. We must heed Spalding's call to make the emotional connections with board member learners. We need to inspire them to explore and stretch and reach for their fullest leadership potential.

We must spark each member's imagination and their passion for meaningful work and provide the support to apply that expanded understanding to their leadership responsibilities. We must appeal to their highest personal aspirations and desires to make an impact and connect them to our nonprofits' needs for visionary community leadership.

Until we can embrace that, as a sector and as individual organizations, our potential will be limited by our leaders' comfort zones.

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