Monday, November 9, 2015

What we need is... Envisioning the essentials of a nonprofit board learning environment

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"What we really need is..."

I've launched many a board-related discussion, reflection, and blog post planning session with that phrase. In the last year, most of them have centered around the topic of building a nonprofit board learning environment.

As I write the 100th post of 2015 - and the 600th post of the blog itself - and as I plan the final entries covering this year's theme, I'm feeling the need to try to pull together a more comprehensive picture of what a nonprofit board learning environment must include and do. That thinking is taking the form of a list that completes the phrase, "What we really need is..."

There may be a sense of "deja vu" for some of this. What's different this time around is a more deliberate attempt to address learning content needs as well as the mechanics of how to make it happen. I've focused a lot on the latter this year, as I brought various adult learning theories and practices to the table. That's important, and largely uncharted territory as applied to nonprofit board development. But it's the means and not the ends of what those efforts need to achieve. This post attempts to include both.

"What we really need is..."

A comprehensive, multifaceted board development process. That process begins with new member orientation and continues across the life of the board. Board members already have a range of learning opportunities, some formal but many more embedded in the work itself. Those embedded experiences should be recognized, cultivated and respected as learning opportunities. We also need to facilitate experiential learning in a board setting, as well as social learning, including mentorships within and across boards.

A comprehensive, multifaceted conceptualization of governance itself. Yes, there are certain roles that board members must play and tasks for which board members must be held accountable. But nonprofit governance is so much more than that - even if many boards don't realize it. I hold up Governance as Leadership as an ideal here. But it is just that: AN ideal, only one leadership-focused framing of the work we need from our boards. Whether GAL or another (or likely multiple "others"), creating and supporting a fuller vision of nonprofit board work not only sets boards up to provide the leadership and service you "really need," it creates an environment where they are motivated and sustained in doing so.

Ongoing formal and experiential board leadership development opportunities. I already knew this before seeing the results of the national board chairs survey that I helped to conduct (Believe me, I'm desperate to have the approval to actually talk about those findings. Soon, I hope. Soon.). We need wide access to information, support and - yes - training opportunities that better prepare our board chairs and other leaders for the responsibilities they assume. Results of our survey (conducted on behalf of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management) can provide some benchmarks for launching that process. What we need from our board leaders is too important to leave to chance - or the example of the person before them.

Inquiry-focused meeting agendas and meeting cultures. This is part of the content needs of the previous item. Board chairs must be equipped to make the most of their members' time and talents. Because, frankly, if that doesn't happen, the rest doesn't matter.  If they're not doing the work that needs to be done, if their eyes are not trained on the horizon and what it takes to move closer to it, they will fail. Avoiding that failure requires rethinking and enacting very different ways of meeting and working together.  It also requires building an environment grounded in great generative and strategic questions, as well as fiduciary inquiry, which is more than monitoring financial statements. Most of our board leaders, and their boards, need specific examples, resources and support to make that happen. We can provide that. We must provide that.

On-demand access to resources, examples, and answers to basic questions that arise in nonprofit board work. We often don't know what we don't know until we find ourselves in a need to know it. Right now. That's generally true for adult learners. It's especially true in specialized settings like nonprofit governance. We can't realistically expect that our volunteer board members learn, retain, and expertly apply everything they need to know to govern. We can,  however, create performance support resources to make finding and using the answers they need in a timely manner. At the board level, that access may be via a board portal or, at a more basic level, a board manual. At a sector level, that requires something broader and universally accessible - something that doesn't currently exist (at least not for everyone).

Opportunities to talk about, educate for and promote nonprofit governance to a broader audience. If we want to expand our recruitment pools beyond the usual suspects, if we want to raise the bar and the visibility of nonprofit governance as community leadership, if we really want more diverse, creative and effective governing, we must do a better job of describing and promoting what it means to serve on a board. That means, among other things, reaching out to where those previously untapped leadership sources live, work, play and interact. That means not expecting them to find us, buy our books, navigate pay walls and other obstacles to our reports, or translate our research articles hidden in academic journals.

Mutually-beneficial, impact-focused partnerships with governance researchers and capacity builders. Some of the support boards need currently lies mostly in the hands of others. This one is on my mind as this year's ARNOVA conference approaches.  We need research-informed conversations and resources about what it takes to govern effectively. We need research that answers questions that actually matter in board practice.  We need capacity-building support from donors and organizations invested in supporting that application. Our boards need to be included as partners and stakeholders in those processes.

Self-assessment and feedback processes for boards as a whole and for individual members. We have the potential to grow in effectiveness when we have an the chance to assess our individual and collective performance. We also benefit from having space for formal and informal reflection on that performance. That doesn't happen in agendas stuffed with reports and action items.

Spaces and places to go to access parts of everything else on the list. I've been mulling this over in my mind for years now, even raising it a time or two here. Rich resources for our boards already exist, but too many board members and board leaders don't know where or how to find them. We need to (a) help create a widely accessible path and (b) make sure that that access is free and welcoming to all.

Speaking of welcoming...

I welcome a conversation on what I've laid out, via comments here or in the usual social media venues where we interact. I also look forward to continuing the nonprofit board learning environment thought process, using this reflection as the next launching pad.

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