Monday, August 17, 2015

Role clarity, learning, questions, resources: Effective nonprofit board practices



I have a confession: What unfolded under the "practice" umbrella during my case study changed the way I think and talk about nonprofit boards and the way I practice working with and supporting nonprofit boards.

From an adult learning standpoint (the discipline where my doctoral work was situated),  this is where the really meaty stuff fell. It's where theory met, well, practice: what actually happens (or not) in nonprofit boardrooms everywhere. It's where the work of nonprofit governance takes place and where the most tangible evidence was likely to come.

That last part didn't surprise. After all, I went into the months of observation and interviews expecting to find examples of board learning in the wild. What did surprise was how nebulous even these very clear, very visible activities were until I had the community of practice framework to help me organize and "see" them in a broader context. 

It's also where the intersections of evidence with both situated learning specifically and practice theories generally occurred. It's where I found the "good stuff," from a research standpoint, and the concepts that I could immediately hone in on as a board educator.

My dedication to that last one should be obvious to anyone who's read at least a week of posts here. In fact, I've been doing that since sending my dissertation off for binding. It's the juicy stuff, the big news, both from an adult learning foundation and a sector practice perspective. It's directly connected to the work of nonprofit boards - because it's actually work, with the power to drive boards to greater effectiveness.

But one thing that definitely has changed since the last time I took a serious look at my dissertation and the data behind it: the understanding that practice alone will not lead to effective nonprofit governance. What made my case study board effective - even exemplary - was the impact of these practices, grounded in the mission (domain) and carried out in the collegial peer community that they created.

That may be the ultimate contribution that this research ends up making to the governance conversation. Too many at the moment hone in on their own sets of practices as the magic, metaphorical "pills" to cure what ails nonprofit governance. If we just get our boards to adhere to these X responsibilities... If we just convince them to focus on these Y tasks... If we just restructure our meetings to do Z... If we focus solely on board practice, all of our board problems will dissolve and we'll reach governance perfection....

Um, no. Probably not. I more or less knew that to be true when I originally closed this research. But today, I have a better understanding - and greater conviction - that that is the case. Practice is one important part of the nonprofit board package; but it is only a part,  not a savior.

There is no way I can do justice to the larger package or the individual, major findings under each of these four factors today. I went into this post thinking I might cover this in two entries, two factors per entry. Instead, I think I'll close this context-setting post and plan to discuss each practice in a separate entry over the next four weeks.

As I prepare to do so, I'll offer one new caveat about what will follow (and this larger "practice" message from my research). These four practices emerged in this particular setting,  viewed through an adult learning lens. Just as I would never ethically encourage anyone to generalize my qualitative research, I also would never claim that these four practices alone will lead to board perfection. I believe my evidence to show their power. But I will never say that only these four practices matter. 

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