Monday, March 9, 2015

Nonprofit board committees as learning centers: Creating, fostering shared expertise

Nonprofit board committees contain so much untapped potential - especially as learning centers that feed high-quality, high-impact governance processes and decisions.

As I closed last week's post, describing one particularly vivid example from my own board experiences, I knew that some aspects of what I described would feel out of reach to many readers. Most nonprofits do not have the kind of supportive national infrastructure that provided several of the components that I described as important to my learning and service in that role.

Comparable experiences exist in, or can be built into, committee work. Still, I feared that my references to national support received in that specific setting might lead some readers to discount the example as not applicable to their committee reality. That prompted a question: what are the more universally true aspects of committee work that foster the best learning opportunities for every member?

Let's start with a couple of observations about board committees.

First, board committees make the governance task manageable. They allow boards to break the work and the deeper thinking required for effective leadership and oversight into manageable segments. Becoming expert in all aspects of nonprofits, individual missions, leadership, and governance is a full-time job expected of part-time volunteers. Committees allow individual members to become the board's peer experts on specific aspects of the larger set of responsibilities. In that context, committees become incubators for researching and creating usable knowledge for the board as a whole.

Second, when they are focused on board responsibilities - not staff functions - committees become the engines for initiating the work of governance. One of the biggest mistakes many boards make (and the biggest missed opportunity for board learning) is setting up committee structure to mirror staff functions (e.g., personnel, finance, marketing). That unfortunate tradition invites micromanagement and distracts from the work boards should be doing. (See an earlier post here for my recommendations on the types of committees that facilitate governance.)

If we respect board committees for their potential and we focus their attention on work that supports core governance functions, what types of learning can - and should - be taking place in the work that they do?  What do they require to foster the kind of learning that prepares them for success? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me.

Board committees need clear charges: what is expected of them, how those expectations will feed board knowledge and work, how they will be evaluated on their progress toward fulfilling what is asked of them. They need structural and human support to accomplish all of that.

Committees can provide peer training and other foundational knowledge support to help educate the board and prepare the larger body to make the best decisions possible in the committee's responsibility area. Charging each committee with becoming the board's peer experts empowers them to dig deeper and share broadly what they learn in the process to expand everyone's understanding.  It also alleviates some of the anxiety that we all can experience when we think about the breadth of responsibilities that board members assume.

To be successful in fulfilling those responsibilities, our board committees need, at minimum, access to information about

  • our organization
  • our mission area
  • their broader committee charge area (e.g., effective resource development practices or community outreach).

Most of the resources they need should be available on demand, e.g., available via a board/committee portal, found on curated web sources, provided in manuals and other tangible assets that can be accessed in the moment of learning need.

Committees need access to internal and external experts who can provide not only information but guidance on direction, questions to pose, potential challenges, and interesting opportunities. These human resources may include (but not be limited to) program staff, organizational management, local experts, university or community college faculty and resources, national/parent organization staff, peers in comparable organizations - and, of course, each other.

If available, they need access to broader peer networks (e.g., the grants committee listserv I mentioned last week) that can provide information, examples, empathy and general support.

Board committees need time to explore, research, deliberate, and formulate their key ideas and recommendations that they will share with their fellow board members. Then they need time to facilitate thoughtful conversations with the larger group and to give the latter the time it needs to question, provide feedback, reflect, and make the best decision possible.

They need access formal learning opportunities - e.g., training sessions, conferences, webinars, and courses - that cover their responsibility areas or practices that enhance committee/group effectiveness.

Obviously, while I'm attempting to create a more concrete sense of what board committees need to make the most of their learning potential, the ideas shared above remain general enough that what they look like in one organization may translate into something completely different in another. That's good - and completely appropriate. I offer these suggestions as a basic framework and an invitation to readers to help me fill in the gaps. What am I missing? What kinds of examples do you have from your board committee experiences?

As I have with all of the previous "board learning environment" posts, I'll close with some questions for reflection:

  • What specific learning needs to your committees have to help them fulfill the responsibilities they have accepted?
  • What sources do you need to create, or locate, to support those learning needs?
  • How can you create a sense of purpose and respect for the kinds of expertise that your committees have, and can create, to support the larger governance process?

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