Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Talking in, about nonprofit board work

This quote, from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, reminds me why their collective thinking - and Wenger's other works - ultimately ended up providing the foundation for understanding the data from my case study of exemplary nonprofit board learning.

Situated learning doesn't just happen to/around us as we go about our business. It's an integrated driver - and outcome - of the practices (including governance practices) in which we engage. This particular statement describes that beautifully. (Note to self: Why wasn't it included in the finished dissertation?!) 

The "both forms of talk" in this quote refer to two types of reflective discussion: talking about practice (exchanging information needed to act) and talking within practice (the stories and community lore shared).

Most reasonably effective boards manage the talking about components of their shared practice easily. They do so in any number of traditional modes of information sharing and exchange, especially reports (given and heard), peer- and expert-delivered education sessions, and discussions about issues placed before them that often precede decisions that they end up making. We're primed to be action-oriented - hence, the ongoing appeal of the self-proclaimed "working board"descriptor. We're there, in large part, to act. But that's not all. That's where the "generative social practices in the lived-in world" come into play.

I didn't pay especially close attention to the idea of talking within practice as I prepared for my case study. I certainly didn't hone in on it as I analyzed and summarized the findings from that research. But with a bit of time, and a lot more experience working with nonprofit boards, I'm appreciating the power of respecting and generating that kind of interaction in a governance setting.

Some of it happens naturally. We're meaning-making beings, driven to serve for a range of personal reasons. If we're lucky, we have powerful experiences within our board work (or related volunteer service) that expand the board's collective knowledge as well as our own. Having the opportunity to share those stories, within the broader context of the board's work, is not a waste of time. It is a legitimate part of the informal learning processes that occur in group settings. They shouldn't overtake the board's agenda. Wallowing in the good old days is no more of a good idea than sticking strictly to checking off action items. But they inform and enrich board members' understanding and, ultimately, their governance power.

An hour ago, I was lamenting the decision to focus on yet another situated learning quote this week. Shouldn't I be moving on, especially toward more specific community of practice references, since I'm in the middle of a brief series focusing on that major finding in this study? Yet, just now, I realized that the second quote above offers the natural next step that I needed but ignored because my last post was just "too long." (Summarizing months of work, binders of transcripts, and hundreds of pages of dissertation into blog-friendly overviews is even harder than I anticipated.)

Two mission examples that didn't make Monday's post are perfect illustrations of talking within practice.

One will ring familiar to many readers: the institutional memory that longtime board members provide. In the case of the board I studied, that memory came in the form of an agency founder. Normally, red flags would be a 'waving. Founders can be both a blessing and a curse, the latter when they don't recognize when to let go.

In this case, I was pleasantly surprised to find a founder well aware of that potential trap. We talked specifically about those risks in our one-on-one interview. I witnessed how she managed the role in the boardroom. This individual - and, actually, other longtime members - regularly provided important context and background that informed board thinking. Some of her peers volunteered insights into how and why they valued the founding member's contributions. They appreciated the institutional history that she offered easily.

Now, do not mistake this shared example as a call to cling tightly to those "irreplaceable" members that some boards fear losing. Fresh blood is a good thing for the board and organization. The chance to step away before burnout overwhelms is a good thing for the veteran member. But this member's example illustrated for me the role that organizational stories play in informing the meaning-driven work that boards do. Her stories were rich, they informed board discussions, and other members said they valued them.

  • Do you make time for stories and examples that add life to your board's work?
  • How do you capture and/or perpetuate those stories to benefit those who will serve down the road?
  • How do you make the mission as rich and meaningful as possible for your leadership?

The other example was one I didn't feel I could officially spotlight in the finished report, but it fascinated me nonetheless. My study began several months, maybe a year or more, after a mission event that clearly made an impact on individual members who participated in it. Yes, Researcher Me still laments my bad timing.

The question: should we expand our mission and programs to include "ABC" services? (Note: Local readers will recognize the agency immediately if I offer specifics. I cannot ethically do that and honor my promise of confidentiality to research participants.) Unlike many "stretch" opportunities that I have seen/considered in similar settings, this clearly was a legitimate extension of the organization's mission. But it represented a major commitment of resources - human and financial - that had the potential to either threaten overall capacity to meet core services or put the organization in a position of offering a popular new program only to drop it when tenuous funding ended.

Ultimately, the board decided to commit to the new program. But it was not a decision made lightly or unanimously. How do I know that? Virtually everyone who was on the board at that time offered it up as an example, usually of mission focus, during the study. I never asked specifically. Since it had already passed, it was not officially germane to my research. But it was noteworthy that the experience had such an impact that they had, and offered, stories about the event.

I was fascinated by that, especially because (a) they found it important enough to mention on their own and (b) they freely offered their individual - differing - perspectives on the mission question.

Paraphrasing some of the better examples (again, because direct quotes would give away the organization):
We can't say we're helping people when this problem exists for them.
We went back and forth on this topic. But in the end, we concluded that it's a part of our mission because, if we don't address this factor, it impacts other areas of our clients' lives.
Yes, I know it's a need, but what if we don't have the money? What are we going to do? How are we going to balance that?

These three examples illustrate the breadth of concerns and considerations that board members reported retrospectively about that discussion and resulting decision. Revisiting the transcripts just now, I am reminded that these revelations not only were offered as examples of mission focus but also as examples of how the board could work together, even on points of difference, to make the right decisions for the organization and its clients.

What kinds of stories do your board members have to tell about their experiences - especially mission-related experiences? What do those stories say, not only about your organization, but their perceptions of the board's power and purpose?

What steps can you take today to increase the organic potential for talking within practice for your boards? How can you use those experiences to enrich and inform their governance practice?

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