Monday, May 12, 2014

Moving past traditional training mindsets: nonprofit board talent development

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

Last week, my lead adult learning professional organization, the American Society for Training and Development, announced a name change at its annual conference. ASTD is now ATD, the Association for Talent Development.

As I thought about what the name change is intended to communicate to members - and perhaps the larger industry - my mind naturally came to rest on what such a shift in focus might mean in the context of nonprofit board development. I asked myself

What if we shifted our focus from "nonprofit board training" to "nonprofit board talent development?"

Words matter. They define parameters. The provide context. They shape the future.

I train my dogs.

I train boards in isolated learning events. I train, in part, because that is what boards ask me to do. I train, because the boards that hire me recognize they have some need - and a desire - to be better. I really train, because these events offer not only an opportunity to address the identified challenge but to open the door to seeing different ways of seeing and doing nonprofit governance.

Training has a role. But training is not enough, not if we want nonprofit boards to reach their full potential. One limitation is both real and a matter of perception. Training implies a deficit somewhere: missing skills - missing something - that the trainer is expected to fill once and be done. Sometimes, that's actually the case. We're missing a key skill or knowledge set that, once identified, can be learned and put to rest. But, in my experience, that's not the real learning need that nonprofit boards have.

Training is fine for my dogs. It is not fine - as a solitary development source - for talented community leaders.

That is my largest source of frustration with "board development" as it is commonly conceptualized, written about and practiced in the sector. When we talk about "board development," we think only in terms of isolated events, led by an expert, addressing discrete skills grounded in the notion that the smart people in the room are failing hopelessly.

I've always resented that as a board member. I am distinctly uneasy about that as a board educator and facilitator.

What if, instead of automatically seeing a need to fix their deficits (and view them as burdens), we took the ASTD/ATD cure and treated developing our nonprofit boards as the investment in valuable resources that it is?

Questions this is raising for me (many of which will ring familiar to regular readers):

  • How do we acknowledge and identify board members' individual and collective talents?
  • How do we harness the existing talents in the room to joint benefit?
  • How do we strengthen and expand those existing talents via experiential learning in service to our mission?
  • How do we identify growth areas that are appropriate to the agency's needs?
  • How do we provide formal learning opportunities that support the experiential learning and strengthen and expand the growth areas?
  • How do we find connections between individual member talents and agency and program needs? 
  • How do we help them discover and nurture new talents through their work with us?
  • How do we invest in that development?
  • How is that investment different than training them?
  • What does that convey to board members, about our understanding of/appreciation for/relationship with them?

Obviously, this is part of a personal evolution in thinking and an ongoing conversation that I want to have in the sector. As I continue to learn more about the ASTD/ATD shift as a member of that organization, I naturally will be doing so through the nonprofit board (talent!) development context. We can pretty much expect that parts of that journey will play out here.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

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