Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Learning to be vs. learning about


Oh, how I love this quote - and all that it represents for nonprofit board development.

Found in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information, it offers a particularly compelling way of thinking not only about adult learning generally but about nonprofit board learning specifically.

While I saw evidence of this in action in my case study, it was not the biggest data news of the research. Still, the application to nonprofit governance is so crystal clear - and was so central to my understanding of the learning needs of board members generally - that encountering it was a transformative moment in my early adult learning journey.

I've long held that board members have two essential sets of learning needs:

  • About the mission/organization itself 
  • About what it means to govern

I've recently added a third - how to work effectively as a group - but its connection to this topic is tangential.

As I revisit this quote today, in the context of the two core board learning needs, I'm seeing a slight shift from my original thinking: the presence of a "learning to be" ("acquiring identities") and a "learning about" ("knowledge acquisition") component to both learning needs.  (I originally saw the former topic as primarily "learning about" and the latter as mostly "learning to be.") It's not a drastic shift from my original understanding, but rather an expansion.

Nonprofit board members have clear "acquisition" learning needs, about both the mission/organization and about their governance roles. For example:

  • We need to grasp the issues driving our mission. 
  • We need to know how our specific programs and services address those issues. 
  • We need to understand the political climate in which we operate and the community realities that challenge. 
  • We need clarity about the essential responsibilities that we assume when we accept a board position. 
  • We need to understand the capacities that we need to have and build to succeed in that role and how those capacities are enacted and evaluated as part of our work.

These are some of the straightforward "whats" and "hows" that facilitate boards' ability to make sound, thoughtful, appropriate decisions about resources, responsibilities, direction, etc. These needs are real and essential to effective governance.

But boards also have "learning to be"/identity needs in both areas.

  • What does it really mean to embody the mission and vision they are charged with advancing? 
  • How do they share their commitment to/passion for the mission with others in authentic ways? 
  • How do they understand - and embrace - their nonprofit governance responsibilities as true community leadership, versus just another volunteer job?
  • How do they not just offer individual expertise (e.g., legal, marketing, financial) to board service but understand and apply them through the unique nonprofit context?

Just as I tried to make a distinction between "good" and "great" boards in Monday's post, I see a similar opportunity to make the connection here.

"Good" board development tends to the "whats:" the knowledge acquisition needs of our governing bodies. "Great" boards also tend to the identity needs. The mission focus of nonprofit work makes the "learning to be" component  simultaneously easier/compelling and more critical than in many other settings.  It is the sociocultural core that distinguishes between "good" governance and "great" governance. "Great" boards accept and embrace the "being" work that is so critical to their leadership in making an impact.

  • How are you tending to both your board's "learning about" and "learning to be" needs? 
  • What needs remain unmet, and how are you doing to rectify that?
  • What's possible - for your board, your organization, and your community - if they are governing at full capacity?



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