Monday, August 31, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Two peer learning roles that board members can play

Note: this is the second of four Monday posts exploring one of the major practices that emerged in case study research uncovering an effective community of practice

While some necessary board learning may require support from trainers and other outside resources, a lot of the expertise and wisdom already is sitting around the table and on the board roster.

One of the reasons the "practice" component of my case study findings was so compelling was the clear and compelling evidence that unfolded in the area of peer learning.

I identified two roles that members play in peer learning. First is the obvious role, as a board expert on a skill area (e.g., financial management, public relations, human resources) or on the organization’s mission area. While I witnessed multiple examples of board members sharing their expertise in routine board work during the study period, two instances stand out for me.

In the first instance, during time set aside to discuss financial reports, a board member with fund-raising expertise expressed concern about the convergence of several factors likely to impact the agency’s capacity to meet community needs. This board member raised issues that others likely already knew – that demand was likely to increase at the same time that access to resources (e.g., grants and individual donations) could decrease. She took the initiative to articulate those strategic challenges, and encouraged fellow board members to consider how to anticipate and adapt to a changing environment.

This board member suggested ways to respond proactively within their fundraising activities, offering examples of steps they could take. Two meetings later, at the board’s request, she led a led an educational discussion focused on the board’s role in cultivation and stewardship of donors. She drew upon her development expertise to introduce several ways in which the board could take a more active role in fund-raising and donor stewardship. She then facilitated a discussion that  ended with a board plan to expand its role in maintaining a strong agency donor base.

Two items of note here:

  • She willingly shared expertise with fellow members, about a topic that generally causes at least discomfort, in an accessible and empowering way.
  • She used her knowledge and her understanding of the world in which the board and agency operated to anticipate a challenge before it became a challenge. In that way, she helped the  board learn and operate from a strategic position, rather than react months down the road when agency client counts bulged and donations became harder to obtain. That is strategic board leadership, my friends.

The board’s treasurer provided the second example I want to highlight here. During a one-on-one interview, the treasurer and I discussed her concern about the challenges that financial reporting and budget issues pose for many board members. Part of the job she says she accepted as treasurer was helping her peers get past any fears so that they can embrace their fiduciary responsibilities.

“I try to put myself in the board’s shoes,” she told me. “What is it that’s really important in an oversight role?” Her monthly reports spotlighted those critical elements, usually anticipating member questions before they had a chance to ask them. She also highlighted any outliers, offering explanations and recommendations when needed. As one of those board members who lives in perpetual fear of missing something important on the budget front, I still appreciate and admire her leadership of group learning.

I mentioned two roles that members play in peer learning. The less obvious role, but also important to effective board deliberations, is that of the non-expert. Members need to be willing to ask questions, challenge “common sense” assumptions often made inside professional areas. They need to be willing to offer other perspectives, from different life experiences and expertise areas, to deliberations. They need to be willing to be naive questioners in service to the organization.

The board I studied provided ample evidence of members’ capacity to play this learning role. While often qualified as a gap in understanding, members who acknowledged asking "naive" questions also demonstrated a willingness to continue posing them, primarily for their own learning and capacity building.

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