The best nonprofit board development efforts begin - and end - with acknowledging that they are competent adult learners with common needs and motivations. Unfortunately, too many traditional approaches to preparing boards for their governance responsibilities seem to forget that.
I'll be applying different adult learning theories to nonprofit board development here this year. Before I delve into some of the more unfamiliar components required to build an effective board learning environment, let's take a moment to revisit one of the foundational frameworks of adult learning, Malcolm Knowles' andragogy.
As I discuss andragogy's six components, your likely response will be "This is plain, old common sense." And you're right. It is common sense (it's also simply a guide to good teaching). But it's worthwhile to talk about them in the context of board member learning, to remind us of the value of recognizing and accommodating their strengths and motivations as adult learners. Doing so offers the potential to increase the effectiveness of our board learning events and experiences.
Assumption 1: Adults are increasingly self-directed in their learning. They deserve to know that others respect their independence and their willingness to take responsibility for their decisions and their learning. They also tend to chafe when others attempt to impose from outside, treating them as voiceless entities in decisions affecting their lives. They thrive in environments emphasizing mutual respect, trust and collaborative spirit.
Assumption 2: They come to the table with a rich and deep array of experiences that can be used as learning resources. None of us are true blank slates, especially not the adults serving on our boards. They bring experiences that can be assets in board development efforts. They also need to connect those experiences to what is being learned. That means ditching the set curriculum and creating teachable moments add context and expand understanding by tailoring to what they already know and do. It's also important to state the obvious: not all experience is quality experience. The challenge for my fellow board developers and me: using those experiences as launching pads to connect learners to new ideas, new concepts, and new experiences appropriate to their governance responsibilities.
Assumption 3: They're ready to learn it, when they need to learn it. Adult learners juggle multiple social roles in their daily lives. Nonprofit board members tend to juggle more than their share, as active community volunteers and leaders. They are challenged to meet what is asked of them every day. There is little time, or patience, for learning events that aren't germane to the work before them or to the everyday life challenges that they face. This is a particular challenge for consultants and trainers, who generally are brought in to focus on knowledge needed for a potential future role. Finding ways to connect that information to their existing work, creating teachable moments that create value now, is essential.
This assumption also will play a key role in the case I hope to make for focusing more on performance support in board development than we do now. How do we make what they need to know accessible in the moment that they need to know it? That calls for a different way of thinking - and different structures and resources - than anything to which most boards currently have access.
Assumption 4: Adults are increasingly problem-centered in their approaches to learning and applying what they learn. Closely related to the previous assumption is this one. We adults are more strongly motivated by opportunities to address an issue or problem that we need to solve. Finding ways to make that connection, in ways that are useful (and that help them solve whatever problem lies before them), is an ultimate responsibility of a board developer.
It also drives board members' independent efforts to seek out and learn from resources that help them understand and resolve the issue themselves. (Remember their tendency to self-direction and their need to know when they need to know.) They will seek out solutions on their own when the motivation is compelling enough. Helping to make those solutions as easy as possible to find and use is a stretch goal for the sector.
Assumption 5: They are driven primarily by internal motivators. This one should be no surprise at all. The motivations we carry within are far more powerful than those imposed by others. That can include requirements set up by an outside source. For example, Wyoming organizations working with domestic violence and sexual assault victims (where I began my governance journey) faced a minimum board training requirement in the early- and mid-1980s from their accrediting body. It also can happen more in more subtle ways within the board, e.g., being told by a fellow board member I need to deepen my knowledge about a topic that I see as germane to the work I'm doing. When we can see the value to our personal growth, job satisfaction, life goals, etc., our motivation increases and our capacity to learn and apply does as well.
Assumption 6: Adults need to understand why they need to learn something before they learn it. You undoubtedly see some overlap between this one and one or two other assumptions, because the similarities do exist. Helping us, as adult learners, see how what we're about to learn will increase their effectiveness as organizational leaders - before we embark on the learning experience - increases our willingness and our potential to grow from that experience. Making the connections with them, between what they already know and do with what they need to know and do, opens their minds and hearts and prepares them for the work ahead.
I see at least two immediate action points for this one. One, board trainers and facilitators need to clearly articulate how the new fits the existing in laying out the groundwork for what is about to unfold - before we begin whatever learning experience we're leading. Two, asking the board members themselves what they need or want to learn - defining their compelling needs and desires for themselves - does a lot of the work for us on this one. They know why they need to learn something, because they defined it as a learning need.
I'll close with a few questions for reflection:
In what ways do your existing board development efforts recognize and accommodate the learning needs of the adults at the table? How does that facilitate the learning that takes place?
In what ways do your existing board development efforts add to the learning challenge, within the context of the framework shared here? What one or two changes could you make to enhance the experience for the board members and the effectiveness of the learning that takes place?
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.