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How do we create, expand, and sustain board member ownership of the learning that needs to take place for them to govern effectively?
As I begin to bring official closure to this year's theme here, part of the process for me is synthesizing and summarizing some of the key messages in actionable forms. Today's post, a throwback to my periodic "10 ways" series, attempts to launch that process.
One of the most basic steps we can take to building a learning environment - and one of the most powerful - is to help members not only recognize the importance of ongoing board development in all of its forms but to spark a sense of ownership. When learning is not something done unto them, when it becomes a valued part of capacity building that members direct for themselves, its power and potential skyrocket. The great news is this: building member ownership of their learning is not that hard. Really.
In the spirit of proving that point, I offer 10 ways to build member ownership of nonprofit board learning. There is nothing magical about these specific items, nor are all 10 necessary to see a shift. Taking even one of these steps can make a meaningful difference.
1. Have board members create and conduct a learning needs assessment. What do they identify as learning needs in two categories: (1) ongoing/universal to the job and the organization and (2) specific to current concerns, opportunities and focus areas? What do they really need to know to govern well? What do they see as important to their understanding for making the best possible choices for your organization?
2. At the same time, ask them to articulate why those needs are important. It's not enough to simply generate a laundry list of training topics. If we want members to commit to their learning and development, we need to help them connect those needs to performance expectations.
3. Ask board members to collectively identify the expertise, knowledge, connections that they bring into the room. We may think we know what each other brings to the table, in terms of professional expertise and skills. But unless we take the time to regularly take stock of the skills, knowledge bases, hidden talents and community connections, we will never know - or be able to access - all of the contributions they can make. A lot will be familiar (though periodic reminders of the wisdom already available to them can only help). But they undoubtedly will surprise each other - and probably themselves - once they start acknowledging the wider range of gifts they carry with them.
4. Expect them to share that wisdom - and support them in doing so. One simple but powerful finding of my dissertation case study was the importance of peer learning and members' willingness to step up and lead when they have the knowledge or experience to inform and direct board discussions and decisions. If you've recruited and oriented well, members already understand that role. It's not only a way to expand the board's collective learning, it's a way to build and value situational leadership that every governing body needs.
5. Make space in every -- every -- meeting agenda for learning. That may come in the form of peer- or staff-led presentations about a mission- or program-related topic. (Note: "training" need not be multi-hour, multimedia extravaganzas. Even a few minutes to share what we know matter.) It may also come from discussions led around an article they are asked to read or a web resource to explore ahead of the meeting. It could also be a big, juicy, catalytic question that demands they research, reflect, and come prepared to really dig into in a generative discussion. Make identification of topics and facilitators for those learning sessions their responsibility.
6. Provide quick access to the tools and foundational resources they use on a regular basis. Board members shouldn't have to hunt for answers to ongoing questions. Whether it is a hard-copy board handbook, a board portal, a hybrid or something else altogether, make sure that their energy is available for learning that really matters, not digging up for the 100th time answers to burning questions like "how many make up a quorum?!" Those resources can and should also include trusted web resources that address mission concerns or governance/leadership responsibilities.
7. Help them see, understand, and appreciate that most of their learning is experiential and/or social, not formal. Awareness of this concept (see the 70:20:10 framework of adult learning) opens the door to opportunities to both value learning that is already taking place in their work and to design those experiences to be richer and more focused on governance needs. No, you can't really structure and fully control the "70" of board experiences. But you can create an environment where those experiences are spent immersed in high-quality governance discussions and roles that naturally expand their resulting learning potential.
8. Transform board committees into learning and leadership labs. For many/most of our boards, the real leg work takes place in committees. That is true for many reasons, some of which have direct connection to board learning potential. If we focus our committees on governance responsibilities (hint: NOT mirroring management functions), we have the perfect starting point for not only breaking work up into manageable chunks, but fostering and distributing deeper expertise for those functions across the board. Committee members have the opportunity (and responsibility) to research and apply what they learn to actionable knowledge for the board as a whole. Taking the additional step of translating that knowledge to inform group thinking and decisions both extends the peer learning process and expands situational leadership potential for everyone.
9. Schedule and design formal learning events that matter. No, formal training events are not the be-all, end-all board development experiences. But they have a legitimate role in board learning. If we design them with their limitations in mind and a sense of context regarding where and how they fit the board's larger performance needs and expectations, their potential value increases. Also critical: ensuring that (a) members come primed for the experience (homework!) and (b) there is a plan for following up so that that application will be supported in in sustainable ways.
10. Include board development in self-assessment processes. Close the commitment loop - and further embed learning into board culture - by including the board development goals identified earlier in individual and group-level assessment processes. Did we take the steps required to address our learning and performance needs? Did we play an active role, as board members, in planning and delivering those learning experiences? Did we use that knowledge to inform our discussions and decisions? Are we committed to our own expanded performance capacity? What are the natural next steps for future learning and development?
Clearly, this list is far from comprehensive. But each of the recommendations here has the potential to help your board members expand, deepen and own their learning and performance development. Committing to all 10 definitely paves the way for high-capacity, high-impact performance. But, as I said at the beginning, taking even one step toward embedding learning into board work can make a difference.
What would you be willing to do to create members' ownership of their governance capacity and performance?