Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Three environments that drive, influence, enhance nonprofit board member learning

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

We all know that nonprofit board members are not blank slates when they arrive at our meetings. We know they carry with them, and draw upon, multiple knowledge sources that shape their thinking and actions. They also are knowledge sources in their own right.

Before leaving Catherine Lombardozzi's excellent resource, Learning Environments by Design (for now), I want to share one more observation that she discusses: the fact that, as adults, board members have three common types of learning environments available to them.

Personal learning environments 

"(A) collection of resources and practices that an individual pulls together to support his or her own learning." A personal learning environment includes a rich mix of people (e.g., peers, professional associations, mentors and coaches) and technology-assisted networks that connect us to colleagues and information resources (websites, organizations, publications, blogs, research reports, portals, etc.).  

Our board members already have their own functional personal learning environments, built over the course of careers and lives well lived, that they can share with us. They may not be continually conscious of those resources. They may use only a fraction of what is available to them in their professional/knowledge areas. But those sources exist and the knowledge they carry within are available whenever we meet as boards We must encourage our volunteer leaders to draw upon all of the knowledge available to them as they interact and deliberate the questions they consider.

Community learning environments

"(B)ased in the interactions among a group of people who have a common domain of practice, who share similar processes, procedures, tools, and approaches...and who generally want to advance their knowledge and practice by interacting with and supporting one another." Lombardozzi offers another label that rings very familiar to me (and likely to many readers): a community of practice. Board members often are part of different professional and personal communities of practice, based on expertise areas and varied interests - all of which may offer some potential value to the boards on which they serve.

But boards themselves also are community learning environments. They have the potential to be high-functioning communities of practice. I've witnessed firsthand the power of an exemplar board operating as stellar community of practice. (I'm also working on a book on this topic.) The bare bones already exist within every nonprofit board. Becoming aware of that, and committing to building board processes and relationships that strengthen that community, strengthens and empowers the board to govern at its peak potential. (I'll be expanding on this notion across the year as part of the 2015 theme for this site.)

Designed learning environments

"(A) deliberately curated collection of learning resources and activities related to a specific learning need." A designed learning environment "can include static resources, human connections, formal learning events, developmental strategies, experiential learning practices, and more." (The five learning components described in the last post play central roles in most designed environments.)

Many board members participate in (and learn from) designed learning environments in their work lives. They already are used to a decent range of tools and processes in expanding their professional development.

Our board development efforts are designed learning environments - at least in name. They include -  but are not limited to - new member orientation, board manuals, training sessions, retreats, and evaluation processes. I am utterly confident that many of your boards enjoy rich, thoughtful, and highly effective designed learning environments. I also hope that you will share your experiences and lessons learned here, in a comment. But call me clairvoyant: I'm predicting that the designed environments supporting most of our boards have much room for growth.

Each nonprofit board will have different learning needs (and opportunities for access to different specific resources). But in general, a typical designed learning environment foundation might include:

  • A process for orienting new board members, including formal event(s), resources, and information support from board and staff.
  • Ongoing access to core documents required to govern (e.g., manuals, bylaws, financial documents, committee reports, minutes), whether hard copy or electronic access (the latter becoming increasingly important to on-demand learning needs).
  • Access to information resources that increase understanding of mission area, board responsibilities and other learning needs (e.g., recommended independent information portals, resources provided by national/state affiliate organizations, subscriptions to electronic and print newsletters and other publications).
  • Opportunities for peer-led learning, preferably embedded in existing meeting agendas.
  • Retreats that include (or even are built around) board learning elements.
  • Organization-supported opportunities to participate in conferences, webinars and other training events.

Awareness of all the learning environment types that Lombardozzi outlines accomplishes at least a couple of things for anyone interested in nonprofit board development. One, it continues the process of expanding our thinking about adult learning. Two, it spotlights the environments that either naturally exist because the board exists (community) or are created to support its existence. (designed) That opens the door to new opportunities - and the responsibility - to completely transform nonprofit board development.

What thoughts come to mind as you consider the learning environments available to you and your boards? What examples can you share of effective elements that support board learning and foster a rich learning environment? What doesn't yet exist that could spark that transformation?

What one step can you and your board take to draw more fully and effectively from the learning environments that you bring into the room?

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. 

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