Monday, March 2, 2015

Learning through nonprofit board committee work: One multilayered,embedded example


Formal learning experiences in nonprofit board development are great. The kinds of rich, immersive volunteer experiences like the one I described last week are fantastic. But the truth is that most of the learning that actually takes place within the governance experience is more subtle, layered, social, and occasionally invisible.

As I sat down to sketch out a more realistic example of "experiential board learning," a surprising thing unfolded. The evidence I generated from that example not only illustrates multiple informal/experiential learning tasks, but it also offers great representation of the triple-mode phenomenon (informal, social, formal) represented in the 70:20:10 framework that I described in an earlier post in this series. That was a pleasant, affirming surprise as I revisited another of the richest learning (and service) experiences of my nonprofit governance life.

The scenario


Like last week's vignette, this learning journey accompanied one of my least traditional invitations to board service. I already was a seasoned volunteer for the organization when the call came. Both parties knew my commitment to the mission and the nonprofit extending the invitation going in. What I did not expect was a part B to the request: would I also assume leadership of the board's grants committee?

Insanity, right? Of course it was. I said yes.

Because I spent my earlier volunteer experience working on one side of the mission, I saw this request as a chance to extend my learning to the other. How did the results of my previous efforts end up impacting lives and communities?

The biggest reason I said yes was knowing that our local nonprofit, and the larger international system of which it was a part, offered phenomenal support mechanisms. I would not be in this alone. They'd provide the essentials. The rest, well, I'd make up - and learn from - on the go.

What follows is the multilayered learning process that took me from "Am I nuts?!" to "We are doing good and even life-saving work, and I am helping to lead the way." I've organized the components into "most central" and "supportive elements" lists. In honor of the unexpected 70:20:10 finding, I'm also tagging each component according to the type of learning it represents.

Most central learning elements


The parent organization's multi-day grants process training. Formal learning experiences have their place in adult learning. This event confirmed that for me. Its role was quite specific and completely germane to my learning needs. It offered foundational information to someone new to the topic (virtually every participant in the room, including me). This event clarified what was expected of us. It introduced the supportive systems - resources and people - available to us as we returned home. It also laid the groundwork for developing a network of peers with whom we could consult in the future, launched during the open spaces that facilitated conversation and connection. (formal, social)

Our local executive director. This individual was a lifeline in my role as grants committee chairperson (and every other aspect of my board work). She shared her own experiences in the local grantmaking process. She understood the mechanics, the "politics," the people, and the outcomes; and she shared all of that openly with my fellow grants committee members and me. (social)

Grants committee members. As a new member, I relied heavily on my more experienced peers to understand the committee's responsibilities. The ED offered one important perspective. My fellow committee members provided another. Over time, I became their equal and a seasoned mentor to those who joined later. Learning came in the form of direct advice/information shared and in collaboration to create and implement the annual selection process. (informal, social)

Our grant review panel.  A select team of mission area experts, this group offered a level of informed critique that added integrity to the grantmaking process. While my fellow committee members and I developed a certain level of understanding and an eye for specific requirements, the grant review panel took the process to a deeper level. Members analyzed whether proposals made good methodological sense and whether the promised outcomes matched the practice described. Their specific expertise also gave them insights into details that my board committee peers and I often lacked the background to see. I learned from panel members, not only in our annual selection meeting, but in reading their individual reviews. (informal, social)

Grants process manual/portal. The parent nonprofit offered multiple performance support mechanisms. Two of the most important for me were the grants manual - originally obtained in hard copy format at the training - and an always evolving grants web portal. Both offered information whenever I needed it (in-the-moment learning, aka performance support). The manual's information was, obviously, somewhat static; but I usually found the answer to my question within its pages. The portal was more dynamic, with new resources being added almost daily. It eventually became my first-stop, go-to source for learning in my grants role. (informal)

Headquarters grants support staff. The parent organization also offered human support, in the form of staff assigned to the grants function. Usually, our ED initiated contact with these individuals on our behalf. But I also had the opportunity to make that contact and to interact once the conversation was open via email or phone. If we had a question we couldn't answer locally, one way or another, the parent nonprofit had it. (social)

Local needs assessment and other raw data sources. To understand how best to target grantmaking, our committee relied on two sources of data. One was a commissioned needs assessment, conducted using a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods. The other was a mix of secondary data sources provided by other organizations and government agencies tracking our mission area. We used both to identify the most critical need areas and to make informed decisions about annual grant criteria. (informal)

Grantee reports. Grant recipients submitted two reports each year, one at mid-year and one at the end of the grant cycle. Reading and responding to those reports allowed the committee to respond to evolving circumstances and to understand the real impacts and challenges experienced by grant recipients. We learned by simply reading and reflecting on those reports. Sometimes, they served as prompts for follow-up conversations and requests for more information. (informal)

Secondary learning sources


Grants listserv. I mentioned the opening of a supportive peer network in my description of the grants training. The primary vehicle facilitating that was the grants teams listserv that the parent organization maintained. Local grants committee members and EDs connected to each other, and to HQ grants experts, via this email resource. It gave us access to a broader peer network (and the experts), inviting us to ask for examples, advice, etc., from others engaged in the same local work.  (informal)

Learning from unexpected outcomes. I hesitate to call them "mistakes," but things didn't always work out as we anticipated in the grants process. Committee members and the ED (and, if necessary, the board) discussed those experiences, analyzed potential reasons for the unexpected outcomes, learned from those reflections, and applied what we learned to the next time we engaged in that activity. (informal)

Exploration of on- and offline mission resources. Sometimes, I just wanted to know more about our mission area. As a reader, I pretty much sought out any written source I could find to help me understand the many facets of our mission. A wealth of information existed at the time, primarily in print publications and web resources. I still keep up on the topic, though now mostly via trusted social media outlets. (informal)

Whew. When I decided to write about this particular board experience, I thought my emphasis would be on the doing. Instead, as I lined up the evidence, I realized that my learning was far more multifaceted and embedded - and rich - than I realized.

That is a good thing. It offers even more convincing evidence of the point I hoped to make: that learning exists everywhere in the nonprofit board experience. We may not realize it. We may not appreciate it as a learning opportunity in the moment (or at all). But it is there. We boost its developmental potential when we take a step back to see, appreciate and support it. We also must let go of the notion that board development only happens within formal training events.

Some questions for reflection:

  • What kinds of experiences are embedded within the work that our board members do? 
  • What kinds of learning emerges from those experiences, and how does that learning shape their performance?
  • What can we do to enhance the quality of learning that takes place within those experiences?
  • What's possible if we focus on doing that?



NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'm 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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