Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Building nonprofit board learning environments: A few foundational questions


What questions will best drive inquiry that will lead to new thinking about nonprofit board development? What do I need to be asking - of myself and others - to successfully create a vision of environments for board learning and leadership? 

As I commit to the theme chosen for this blog in 2015, I move forward with a few questions driving my focus and thinking. Some have been burning for years. Others are emerging as I explore the role of personal learning environments and performance support in adult learning. Together, they offer an exciting base that I hope will inform thinking, spark conversation and - ideally - transform board development practice.

Today, I share some of the most compelling questions as I prepare for what comes next.

  • What do board members really need to know, do, apply, etc., to govern effectively?
  • What capacities do our board chairpersons and committee chairpersons need to lead effectively?
  • What ongoing learning needs do new members have as they move toward full participation?
  • What are some of the most common learning and information needs that emerge while engaged in the work of governance (i.e., learning in a time of need)?
  • How can we make that information as accessible - and close to the work - as possible?
  • How do our board members define their learning needs? When do they tend to identify them as learning needs?
  • What motivates board members to seek out information/support for their learning needs?
  • What types of performance support do our board members use in other areas of their lives? With what formats and processes are they already comfortable, and how might we incorporate them in a board setting?
  • What types of coaching, from whom, could be offered to board leaders while on the job?
  • What needs to be done to make formal learning experiences (e.g., orientations and formal training events) as effective as possible?
  • What types of post-event support do board members need to ensure that they have the best opportunities possible to incorporate what they learn into their governance practice?
  • What new resources - or forms of resources - are needed to support board learning and performance? How do we make them as accessible as possible to as many boards as possible?

I doubt I'll come away from 2015 with definitive answers to even these "foundational" questions. They're really the stuff of a lifetime of inquiry. If I can spark conversation - and maybe a little action - on a handful of them, it will be a great year.

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 blog theme: Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership


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.



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Head, heart, gut: Engaging three different brains in the nonprofit boardroom

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What brain are you using when you engage in boardroom discussions? What brains do your fellow members bring to the table?

You might guess (correctly) that I chose and read Marcia Reynolds' The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs with nonprofit boards in mind. While the book was filled with insights that promise to transform board thinking, one of the most intriguing was Reynolds' description of Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka's research on three types of brains - neural networks - that we have and use.


Reynolds describes the three brains and their primary functions this way:

Head brain: "reasons, analyzes, synthesizes, and makes meaning of what is perceived." (Curiosity)

Heart brain: "activates based on how the presenting situation relates to your aspirations and desires ranging on the scale from responding to the joy of achieving what you most dsire to sensing what you hoped for is out of reach." (Care or compassion)

Gut brain: "reacts to impulses of self-preservation, including reactions based on fear and the impulse or will to act on courage." (Courage)

Reading those descriptions with nonprofit boards in mind may prompt some us to think, "Hmm. Jane certainly checks her 'heart brain' at the door..." Or "It's obvious that Steve's 'gut brain' rules his thinking..." Or "Our board definitely could stand to kick its collective 'head brain' into gear more often..."

In reality, we all have all three capacities and they are not easily compartmentalized. Certainly, we may have our comfortable modes of thinking and working. If we've taken a broad view of diversity in our recruitment, we come to board work with individuals whose dominant modes of thinking operate in areas different than ours. But the point that must not be lost is that everyone has capacity in all three "heart" areas and they all are equally important in governance work.

"When we listen to one another from all three centers, conflicts are more quickly resolved and people feel more motivated to act," Reynolds says. We also create an environment with more breakthrough potential, because we are seeing problems and opportunities as three-dimensional phenomena.

I certainly can't - and won't - try to describe or justify the science behind the concept. But I will ask that we consider what we might learn if we try to become more conscious of the modes of thinking that we are applying as we discuss the issues raised in our boardrooms. What if we take it a step further and not only become more aware of the dominant modes but consciously attempt to ensure that we're using all three types described in this research in those same discussions?

What governance decisions can't be enriched by approaching them with a combination of curiosity, care/compassion, and courage?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Touching the board member's heart: Meaning making in nonprofit governance experience



Some experiences simply engrave themselves on the heart and remain there forever.  One of those experiences, for me, was preparing for and performing Handel's "Messiah" for the first time 40 years ago this month.

I was a new high school student, learning music that would be a short-term annual tradition. What I did not anticipate was that it was far more than memorizing music so I wouldn't embarrass myself on stage. It was creating an experience, in the company of others, that expanded my heart in unexpected ways.

Today, as I think again about not just the music but the ways in which it created a common bond between friends, I can't help applying what made that special to board service. I say that, trusting that many (hopefully, most) board members already have their own transformative governance experiences. I have. Unfortunately, they have been more rare than I would have hoped.

What lessons from creating that common musical connection with others can I take and translate to a meaningful board journey for individual members? I asked myself that question and came away with these key ideas.

The promise - and delivery - of something beautiful at the end. My single voice contributed, but the true magic came when it joined many others to create the greater melody and harmonies that resulted in a work of art. That is what happens when the right mix of people, skills and perspectives come together to govern: single contributions become collective thinking and creation of something they never could accomplish alone.

Appropriate, but not impossible challenge. My choir teacher was tough. She introduced us to the world greatest music and expected us to perform it beautifully. But she never bent us to the point of breaking (even when she put us in a concert hall with hundreds of others to sing Verdi's "Requiem." In Latin.).  The collaboration required to accomplish that "something beautiful at the end" calls on everyone to reach to the edges of their capabilities of these kinds of big but not impossible challenges. That is nonprofit governance at its fullest and finest: rising and stretching to move ever closer to our inspiring missions and visions.

It also requires a leader who...

Has the commitment to the larger picture, both the promise and the challenge described above. Performing this particular work was a tradition long before I arrived at my school. It was a tradition for as long as this director taught there. She was the common thread and the lead motivator who passed on her own commitment to the music to every student who performed it for and with her. Our board leaders may not (and should not) have her longevity, but they must have her strength of commitment to advancing the common goal and the willingness to share with and engage others in that quest.

Understands what is required of everyone, individually, to succeed as a group.
Our teacher knew, note for note, what was expected of the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. She knew exactly what she needed from every member of the orchestra. And she knew how to draw what she needed from all of us to create the masterpiece as a whole. Nonprofit board leaders may not have sheet music spelling out every single note required of all of us; but they need to understand what each member must bring to the table to ensure that discussions, deliberations and decisions lead to the best that the group has to offer.

Has high standards for reaching the bigger goal and holds everyone accountable for his/her part in succeeding. I've written about this many times before, and it holds true here. Just as my teacher's high expectations for us as a group and as individual musicians drove us to work our hardest to attain that performance, so too do the high expectations of our nonprofit leaders and peers.

Helps individual members understand and produce their best performance. Miss S. didn't just throw us into the deep end of the musical pool and expect us to sink or swim. She gave us the tools and the practice opportunity - and the occasional correction - to reach our best. So, too, should board leaders learn what individual members need to perform their our best and provide appropriate support to help them reach for it.

Helps members create meaningful, inspiring experiences that engage their hearts as well as their minds. We did more than learn the notes. We created meaning in something beautiful that our instructor found and shared with us. We discovered the thrill of working together - one voice among many - to create something powerful that we only could accomplish together, aligning with the vision of something incredible that our guide shared with us. For most of us, that experience was far more than an exercise for a grade. It was a shared experience that opened our hearts, that we still hold dear decades later - even without the libretto in front of us. It was the collective experience of creating something greater than ourselves - and being able to share it with others.

Just as one teacher did every December, nonprofit board leaders have these same opportunities to create experiences that reach and expand individual members' hearts. They have the same opportunities - and expectations - to create and communicate a vision of a beautiful and challenging future toward which everyone moves.

For my classmates and me, that future was a glorious evening performance in an auditorium filled with music lovers. For nonprofit boards, it's a term filled with experiences that connect their hearts as well as their minds to something bigger. It's asking, and expecting them, to carry their part of the music of the mission. Offering opportunities to experience the results, even if those results are smaller steps connected to the mission and members' larger purpose in serving.

How will you, as a board leader, create experiences that engrave on the hearts of members? How will you help members find and create meaning that enriches their service and deepens their commitment to the larger harmonies required for you to fulfill your mission and change your community?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Before I die (or finish my board term): Leaving a personal nonprofit governance legacy


While they prepare for final exams next week, students at my home university are getting a tad philosophical (or maybe expressing anxiety about those finals...).

As I've watched different students make their own public declarations in this space the past few days, I've also been wondering how board members might respond to a variation on the same theme:

Before I die (or, at least, complete my term of service), I want to... 

How would I respond to that same open ended statement? Reflecting back on my own board experiences, I realize that I usually spent more energy up front focused on the task at hand: what I needed to learn, do, be to successfully uphold the commitments I was assuming as a new member. 

Obviously, those are appropriate goals for new members. But what if I - and you - looked just a bit further into the future at the beginning of each new board service term? 

What if we also took a few moments to complete that variation on our students' statement:

Before I complete my term of service, I want to...

Two questions immediately come to mind:

  • What, exactly, would the response(s) be?
  • How might contemplating one's individual legacy from the beginning help to shape that legacy by the time one wraps that up board service?

At the board level comes at least one question:

  • How might open conversations about our collective impact build and expand it as new members arrive and depart?

Specific responses will be uniquely individual, as they should be. But in general, introducing this reflection has the potential to foster the following:

  • Increased awareness that board membership involves more than showing up for meetings prepared. It invites conscious attention to ultimate impact - what we, specifically, can accomplish when we fully commit to all that effective governance requires.
  • More deliberate attention to what we, specifically, can contribute: our life experiences, our passion for the work, our connections that we can make between our networks and our organization, etc.
  • Acknowledgment that we have legitimate need to know that our investments of time, energy and other resources mattered - to us as much as the organization.

I offer this statement to be completed, and this process, as an additional tool for reflection and for more deliberate attention to another factor that facilitates fulfilling and effective governance performances and experiences.

What thoughts come to mind as you think about either your own response to that statement or about institutionalizing a step like this into your board processes?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reconceptualizing nonprofit board needs: One perspective building from mission


Passion for mission? Not enough?

I must admit that the title of Chris Grundner's TEDxWilmington talk ("Modern nonprofit board governance: Passion is not enough!") caught my eye and drew me in when I first encountered it.

I'm still processing his pyramid of board needs (a take-off on Maslow's Hierarchy) and how it prioritizes those needs. But both Grundner's adaptation and the talk as a whole offer a thought-provoking discussion about what contemporary nonprofit governance really needs to fulfill its leadership priorities and potential. I share it today in the spirit of encouraging conversation and expanded thinking - again - about what it is that boards really require to govern effectively.

Please take a few moments (less than 14 minutes) to watch the talk in its entirety. In the meantime, let me list the four layers in his hierarchy for readers. On order of most foundational (base of the pyramid) to highest level, they are:

Passion for mission - also includes the basics of participation, e.g., showing up for meetings and events, making contributions. This parallels my own recruitment bottom line, commitment to mission. "Passion" for me it a step above commitment - and often comes with experience. But, as Grundner says, attraction to the mission is the starting point for board service.

Standards and best practices - critical to board excellence, effective only if we hold members accountable. He makes points about form following function and rules/processes applying equally to everyone. It should be so common sense that he need not point that out. Alas, in practice, we do sometimes play favorites, stretching policy or looking the other way when certain members fall short or misbehave. The larger point: structures and processes that facilitate board work have a legitimate place in nonprofit governance. The key - which can get lost if we are not attentive and committed to it - is that we must build in, and enact, individual and board-level accountability.

By the way, Board Educator Me appreciated him including "Continuing Learning Process" in the visual at this level. I wish he had expanded on that specific element in the talk itself.

Diversity - including diversity of skill sets and perspectives. There can be many ways to define and accomplish these diversity types. Grundner leaves that piece open but makes a great case for ensuring that we have the right mix of voices in the room that are "not afraid to challenge the status quo." He calls for a "culture of constructive conflict" where "purposeful disruption" is welcomed and used on the way to higher quality decisions.

Transcendent leadership - succession planning that creates a ready pipeline for new board members and avoids lost momentum with leadership turnover. Boards "must provide steady stewardship and bold leadership nor more than ever," Grundner says.

As I said, I'm still processing the structure and contents of the hierarchy itself. But the larger message and goals ring true, and Grundner's talk deserves extended visibility and discussion.

I'm interested in hearing what resonates for you, what causes pause, what inspires. What might this particular resource offer to our always growing understanding of nonprofit governance and the boards that enact it?