Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Maintaining mission, learning focus

Exceptional nonprofit boards keep their eyes on what matters: the horizon, the vision of a better future that lies just beyond it, and the mission that drives them closer to it.

I take a brief, strategic step away from adult learning theory this week in anticipation of next Monday's post discussing how mission focus was exemplified in my case study.  This quote, from BoardSource's The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance that Drive Exceptional Boards, offers the perfect context for what I will describe. (Note: there also is a free overview of the principles here that is worth the minor hassle of having to go through the store to access. The Source is one of the most revolutionary, governance-focused ideas out there. It should be more accessible, and more visible, than it has been.) 

This quote, describing the "Mission Driven" principle, is one of three from this publication that made it into my literature review. Frankly, at the time (and, to my knowledge, still today), it was one of very few nonprofit board resources that even pretended to address governing bodies' learning and inquiry needs. This particular principle - and the quote describing it - address the primary focus point of a lot of those needs: the organization's purpose as expressed in its vision and mission.

How do we keep the vision and mission alive for the board? How do we define and assess board accountability for advancing the vision and mission? How do we create not just ownership but motivation to make that ownership meaningful and inspiring?

I originally thought I'd slip this second "Source" quote into this post as a bonus, so that I wouldn't have to return to this resource again in this series. It's still a bonus, in terms of the original topic. However, as I review it again today, I realize just how central it might be to the original research questions and the evidence that I found in my time with the case study board.

Today, as I re-read this passage, I recall vivid examples - shared in future posts in the Monday series - of board members educating themselves and each other about the mission area and the organization-specific challenges. I also recall a fantastic example of how reflection on a previous milestone experience in the board's life continued to inform board thinking about mission and shape individual members' approaches to fulfilling it (details also coming in a future post). I also can recall how they kept the recipients of the services provided, as well as agency donors and other supporters, at the forefront of many/most of the discussions I observed.

Whew. Whether or not you're getting much out of my trip down research memory lane, this little "aha" moment just made the entire process personally worthwhile! It even changed the headline. This didn't raise so much as a blip on the theoretical radar as I was writing my dissertation, in the posts I wrote immediately after completing it, or in any other writing or speaking on the topic. Yet, today, it pretty much summarizes everything I found to be true of board learning for the group I studied.

How does your board's learning inform and inspire your members? How do they participate in their own learning processes? What role does reflection play in expanding their thinking and governing capacity? Those are the questions that this quote inspires in me this morning.

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