Monday, June 8, 2015

My (revised, still very much draft) nonprofit board learning (and performance) manifesto

What really needs to happen to ensure that nonprofit board development is effective? Is learning the ultimate goal in those efforts, or instead the vehicle by which something else happens? How do we motivate board members to rise to the highest levels of leadership that we need from them?

Both the title of this blog and the theme chosen for this year reveal my larger commitments to nonprofit board development. My beliefs and biases are interwoven into pretty much everything I write here.

As I near the halfway mark of 2015,  I find myself wanting to revisit the "nonprofit board learning manifesto" that was my first attempt to articulate those core values and beliefs. Comparing what I'm about to share to what I outlined in 2010 is part of my growth as an adult educator. It also reflects a broader understanding of the unique nonprofit board context. The critical expansion from draft one to draft two: acknowledging the essential role of improved performance as the reason for board learning. I've embedded a few links to related posts for some basic context and information.

So here it is:

My (revised, still very much draft) 

nonprofit board learning (and performance) manifesto

  1. Nonprofit board members are never not learning, in their service with your organization and elsewhere in their lives. That learning shapes and informs their approach to governance - whether or not they realize it.
  2. Most of their learning about board service is situated in the work and context of governance. It is embedded the processes and experiences of being a board member.
  3. Individual members bring knowledge, skills and other sources of learning that offer the potential to expand the board's collective capacity.
  4. Performance is the bottom line, not learning for its own sake. Board development efforts should be identified, implemented and evaluated within that larger context: how does this learning impact our performance as a governing body?
  5. Meaning - through a nonprofit's mission and values - infuses everything and shapes the learning potential for a board.
  6. Board members' minds and hearts are best engaged with powerful questions - questions that require deep and meaningful inquiry that inform and fuel governance performance. Goals, agendas and other core components of board work must be based in governance inquiry
  7. Formal learning events have a legitimate role in board development, but they are neither the only mode of learning that can/should take place nor necessarily the most effective.
  8. Experiential learning (learning by doing) and social learning (learning from/with others), generally are both more common and more effective than formal learning. If we (a) we are aware of their power and (b) willing to invest energy into enhancing these processes that naturally feed board performance, their potential value increases.
  9. Adults have a range of preferences for accessing and working with information, including the information needed to govern effectively. To the extend that a nonprofit board and staff can accommodate these preferences - in creating tools/resources and sharing in member-friendly formats and platforms - board member learning and performance will grow.
  10. Time to reflect, individually and collectively, is an essential part of board learning and performance. Board members need regular opportunities to step back, reflect on their work, and appreciate (and assess) their work. They learn from that experience.

As with other posts in the "board learning environments" series, I'll close this one with a couple of questions for reflection:

  • Which item on this list strikes you as most germane to where your board is as a learning community? How does it either affirm what you already are doing to support board learning and performance or confirm the need for adjustment to those processes?
  • Where are the biggest performance gaps for your board and how can informing our understanding of how board members learn help us help them close those gaps? Where do we start that process?


Bonnie Koenig said...

Debra - As always, I appreciate how you have made this commitment to 'learning out loud' with us your online community of practice. From my experiences with a wide range of boards, I would say an especially emphatic yes to #5 Meaning #6 Powerful Questions (you know how I love questions :) and #8 Experiential learning. I find that the boards I have worked with struggle the most with being a true learning board (#1 and what underpins much of the rest of what is listed) so I would consider this the biggest 'gap' in answer to your question. This may be partly because board members often come to boards at the height of their careers and feel they have been asked in order to share their experiences and advice. It may also be the culture in their own organizations - that they are more used to being the 'leader' than a peer among equals. Creating a board culture of true learning takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, but in many ways sets the tone for many of the other items you list that a board has to tackle. So it may be worthwhile continuing to explore the conditions that allow a board to be a true learning board and identifying some models of boards that have made progress in this direction.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Bonnie - Ditto. :) Seriously, thanks so much for your shared wisdom here. I definitely agree with your observation about the challenge inherent in creating the conditions for (even simple awareness of) becoming a true learning board. It is a major investment that many boards either don't fully grasp or are unprepared/unwilling to make. It extends the *leadership* commitment required of those who serve.

I also acknowledge, and agree with, your point about board members expecting to be in the position of expert/adviser/decision maker. We invite them to serve because they have the answers we seek. They accept because they are willing and prepared to provide those answers - specifically and generally.

I'm reminded of a fellow board member, a local business leader (now deceased), who shared that he was taken aback when his advice on an issue was requested, acknowledged, and then followed up with a request for other perspectives in a discussion I was leading. I saw that process as simply good facilitation and engagement. He saw it, initially, as discounting his expertise. In our conversation, he shared that he eventually came to see it as part of the process but that he was not used to having his expertise/advice "questioned." From his position as a respected owner/manager/business leader, he was used to him making a decision and people acting on it.

It was a learning experience for him but also for me: that expertise that we ask our board members to bring carries great value, but they need help understanding (a) the general nonprofit governance context and (b) the specific learning and capacity needs of this specific board and how their contributions fit.

That's one part of the learning process that we often fail to facilitate for our boards, and that is a mistake.