Monday, February 23, 2015

The transformative power of experiential learning in board service: One example

How do we bring experiential learning to our board members in ways that give life to the mission and the organization?

I offered a few illustrations in a recent post. But given my belief that experience can be the greatest teachers in all types of settings (including/especially the nonprofit board), I thought I'd continue the conversation with a couple of personal examples. Today, I'll share my most powerful and transformative learning experience - one connected to my earliest board assignments. Next week, I'll offer a personal example that represents a more realistic kind of experiential learning opportunity for board members.

(A note before I start: Yes, I know there are slightly problematic components to this example. I offer it as my own story and a prompt for reflection on similar kinds of immersion opportunities that you have experienced or offered to your board members.)

My unorthodox entry into nonprofit governance included an equally unorthodox training requirement: participation in the organization's 16-hour victim advocate training.  Across a weekend, my fellow trainees and I explored the center's primary mission areas - domestic violence and sexual assault - in ways unparalleled in any other board induction experience. We also learned from experienced victim advocates and practiced role playing in a series of common crisis line scenarios that we might encounter.

I emerged on Sunday night exhausted, overwhelmed, deeply informed, and utterly transformed. The experience fulfilled my board training requirement and prepared me for my new volunteer work as a victim advocate (I couldn't not step up).

It also turned my entire world view upside down. I was forever changed.

Obviously, I learned nothing about nonprofit governance during this "board training." I did, however, come away far more aware of our mission areas, issues about which I'd had only passing acquaintance as a reporter for the local newspaper. Taking my initial crisis line shifts deepened my understanding of the very real challenges that victims face, victims who were largely invisible in our small community. I also learned firsthand the importance of having someone available to them 24/7, and the need for those picking up the phone when it rang to have a range of support mechanisms to ensure that they were prepared to respond appropriately. I knew what it was like to be the voice on that end of the phone, and the person meeting the caller in person.

I still remember my first experience with the latter: a late-night call about a disturbance at the local Perkins restaurant. When the agency director and I arrived (because no new advocate worked without staff support), we met a domestic violence victim who had dumped over a massive gumball machine so that the Perkins staff would call police. She didn't know she could simply call and ask for help.

When I moved to Laramie, I carried my commitment to victim advocacy with me. I also joined the agency's board and encountered the same training requirement (Board participation must have been a state mandate, though I'm foggy on that detail. It was not optional, though.). I found myself in a second extended learning experience, this time 40 hours long. While a lot was review, many new opportunities to practice skills and prepare for whatever the phone line might bring expanded my learning and my appreciation for the critical work of the agency's staff and volunteers.

I served as a victim advocate here as well, anticipating each pager beep with dread but ultimately knowing whoever was on the other end needed something in the moment that I could provide. I frequently felt regret that I seldom resolved their usually complicated situations, but I remembered early counsel by a staff member: I was "there" for them by simply answering the phone and listening.

I was there for one caller, "Susan." We talked about her latest beating at the hands of her husband. We talked about options. She told me she was ready to at least have one night of peace. We met at the safe house and made that happen. A few months later, what every victim advocate fears happened: "Susan" had been murdered by her husband.

I was forever changed by that experience, too.

What does any of this have to do with experiential board learning? Well, for starters, I was a board member of one of the organizations the entire time I served as a victim advocate. I brought what I learned and experienced, through that volunteer work, into every board meeting. I had an up-close-and-personal understanding of our impact (and the issues each mission addressed), thanks to those interactions with recipients of our services. They informed my thinking and my decision making, because they made the mission utterly real to me.

Let's acknowledge at least a couple of problematic aspects of the scenario just described. One, that particular kind of volunteerism is not realistic, or even desirable, for all board members. Two, I clearly wore two hats in that my work with each organization, roles that could at times conflict. I honestly can't recall situations where my volunteer mindset interfered with my governance responsibilities, but the potential certainly existed. There also was the tricky accountability mix between me as both volunteer and board member and the executive director. Again, while no conflicts arose in the moment, the possibility that a line was crossed at some point definitely existed.

I offer this as a vivid example of the kinds of experiences that we can both offer to our board members and the kinds of experienced volunteers already in your organizational family who may be great candidates for your next opening on your governing body.

If it is appropriate and individual board members are interested in other types of volunteerism within your organization, support that as a legitimate experiential learning opportunity. Have the "hats" conversation - when are you serving as a board member vs. when are you functioning as any other volunteer - to reduce the risk of overlap or mixed signals about accountability. Encourage sharing of those experiences with other board members, with the necessary caveats about anything that cannot be brought to the boardroom table (an obvious example from the case above: I could discuss my general advocacy experience but not individual clients).

Anything that puts board members into settings where they get to experience your work and your mission firsthand has the potential to enhance their value as informed and engaged board members. To the extent that you can offer - and even create - rich opportunities for immersion in what you do, you expand your board members' knowledge and commitment.

This also should open the door to considering the wealth of experiences available within individuals already committed to your organization during your board recruitment process. A room full of victim advocates would not have been useful to either organization mentioned above. But a retired advocate may be the perfect candidate for your next board opening. Your current volunteers may carry the mix of skills, connections and perspectives that you're seeking in your board recruitment process. Board service may be the right next step in their commitment to you.

Even though it is not a perfect example, and perhaps an extreme one, I offer this personal vignette as an invitation to reflect on these two questions:

  • What kinds of experiences you already offer your board members?
  • What other kinds of opportunities can you offer to expand their firsthand knowledge of your mission and your work?

I would dearly love to hear about your examples. So would future readers. Please consider sharing an illustration of how your organization provides quality experiential learning opportunities to your board members. I'd also appreciate hearing about any ideas that your reflection is generating for future board development.

Next week, I'll offer a second personal example of experiential board learning - one that may ring more familiar and be more realistic for your board members.


Nancy Iannone said...

When I was the Executive Director for our local hospice,we strongly encouraged board members to do a ride along with staff to visit some of our patients (with patient permission, of course). Those that participated came away transformed, and with renewed passion for the mission. Only about 20% of the board took advantage of that opportunity. When we discussed making it mandatory, the board declined to do so.

Although at the time, I found their response frustrating, I later realized that not every board member was willing or able to participate in that kind of learning experience. Knowing that experiential learning can be so powerful, how do we best incorporate it in ways that are meaningful to the board? I look forward to reading more in your next post.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, I so appreciate this example, Nancy! I am not surprised, though I also am sad, that the notion of making it required didn't resonate.

In terms of incorporating this learning into their board experience, I'll make a handful of of observations that may spark an idea or two.

One, if we're talking about learning from experience more broadly, there are many ways that they already are learning in their work and can be learning even more deeply - IF we move them away from those darn oral reports. :) Next week's post will offer an example of that.

Two, we can continue to invite them to participate in all of the appropriate opportunities that we offer to bring them closer to the mission. Maybe the ride-along didn't appeal to those who hadn't participated, but another hands-on experience would.

Three, hearing from their peers who did participate, and who were impacted so deeply, may change the mind of some. Provide opportunities to share what they learned and how the experience expanded/deepened their understanding of your mission and those you serve.

Four, if you have multiple opportunities lending themselves well to hands-on board experience, consider posing adding participation in at least one of them each year to their board member job description. Be prepared to make a great case for the value of witnessing your work firsthand in helping to provide context for the decisions they make. Include fulfillment of that responsibility in their annual evaluation to reinforce the importance of that element.

NOTE: Attending the annual fundraising dinner is NOT generally the kind of experience I'm talking about here. :)

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Another thought: have them identify the kinds of learning needs that they have. Chances are good that many to most will have an element of needing to visit, experience (vs. sitting and listening to a staff presentation,p). Then it's their idea.