What is possible if we completely transform our way of thinking - and practice - about the way we prepare and support our nonprofit boards?
What if we treated investment in our boards' collective knowledge and leadership capacity as an investment in our organizations' and our communities' futures?
What if we saw board development as occurring not as isolated events but in environments that recognize the ways in which adults learn best?
What if we specifically built and supported environments for nonprofit board learning and leadership?
As an adult educator focused on board development, these types of questions have long dominated my thinking and writing. They've been at the center of this blog since its first post and even helped to define the site's name.
It may seem strange that I'm just now committing to a year spotlighting board learning, as this site's eighth anniversary approaches. I'd agree, it's long overdue. But the timing also makes sense, as I'm immersing myself more into evolving work on learning environments and ecosystems and the role of performance support in workplace learning and development.
I've been tippy-toeing around the topics when talking about nonprofit board development for a while. I've cautioned against the limits of the "learning=training" mindset that I still see too often in the sector, especially when talking about preparing our boards for their responsibilities.
Today, as 2015 nears, I'm ready to begin laying out the holistic, multi-layered environment that I believe we need to transform board development - and possibly nonprofit governance more generally.
I plan to spend a good share of 2015, in this space, outlining a plan for "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership."
As I continue to outline for myself - and, eventually, readers here - exactly what that might look like, the following foundation points guide me:
(Anticipated) Key Messages for 2015
Nonprofit boards, and their individual members, are leadership assets that must be valued, nurtured and supported. They are worthy of the investment required to build their full collective and individual leadership capacities. It is, indeed, the only way they will succeed and serve us to their fullest and most effective.
Boards have a range of learning needs that must be met if they are to govern effectively. These needs include (but are not limited to) topics related to their mission topic, to their organization, to innovative approaches to nonprofit governance, and to effective group dynamics. These needs are multi-layered and frequently intertwined.
We must respect board members' limited time. This means we need to find ways to appropriately embed learning into their existing work as much as possible. We also must recognize that learning already exists in that work, whether or not we recognize it as learning.
We benefit from conscious attention to how adults learn - and want to learn. From the standpoint of my writing here, this will translate into focused attention to select adult learning theories that expand our thinking and understanding of what learning should look like in a board context.
Approaching board development from a learning environment perspective offers the potential for greater breadth and depth. It also requires recognizing and accommodating the different strengths and preferences of board members as adult learners.
"Technology" should be part of the support structure of board learning, but never added for its own sake. Adult board members already are using these tools in their other life roles. It makes sense to explore them as part of the board learning process, integrated into their existing work and personal routines. "Technology," however, should never be used for its own sake. It must support, not drive, any new approaches to board training and performance support.
In the end, what ultimately is needed is a sector-level effort to create and support the learning environments that our boards need and deserve. I can share ideas, research and insights. I can propose an agenda. I can invite and facilitate conversation. I can create some shareable resources and create accessible learning experiences. But in the end, transforming the way we approach board development lies in the hands of the sector itself.
If we're lucky, individual organizations and/or groups of organizations may pilot some or all of what is proposed. Inevitably, I predict we'll need proof that making such a major shift in think and approach is worth the effort. If that's the case, I'll be glad to help those pilots happen. But in the end, it's a sector-level commitment that must be made.
I'll write a mix of posts in the year to come. Many will address board learning - and board learning environments - directly. Some will touch on board learning in more subtle ways. Others will cover completely unrelated (but board-focused) topics. I have a general idea of how this adventure might unfold, but what emerges in the months to come may surprise me more than anyone.
An important part for me, as an adult learner and reflective practitioner, will be making the process as transparent as possible. I'll be sharing my questions, my ahas, my mistakes, and my experiences. I'll learn from that process and trust that it will provide context that may be useful for others interested in the larger outcome.
In the end, if it expands understanding of nonprofit board development, if it increases sector knowledge about how adult learning theories can inform and enhance board learning processes, if it fosters conversations around how we can take that knowledge base and use it to transform how we prepare our boards for their leadership commitments, then it will have been a successful year.