Monday, December 28, 2015

Creating a nonprofit board learning environment: Inspiration revisited

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

What does a board learning environment really look like? What's possible if we adopt a learning environment approach to developing boards and expanding their collective governance capacity?

As the closure process for my 2015 theme here continues, I can't help returning to the framework that influenced my interest in exploring board learning from an "environment" perspective, created by Catherine Lombardozzi. Catherine shared her framework sometime in the fall of 2014 (my bookmarks are dated October 2014), in advance of her excellent book that expands upon it, Learning Environments by Design.

The holistic approach appealed to me, both from a conceptual standpoint and from an "I've seen that in real life" mode. My mind is a tad foggy this morning, on how her work informed my decision about the theme chosen for the year now closing. While I've gone on to flesh out what I consider to be essential components of a learning environment for a nonprofit governance context, and I'm still pulling things together in a way that makes sense, I can't help returning to Catherine's framework and acknowledge that it's more or less perfect as she has laid it out.

Downloadable visuals of Lombardozzi's learning environments model can be found here, under the "graphics" heading (along with a plethora of resources you may find as useful as I did). For the sake of this reflection, I'll reiterate the core components and a few of the examples she offers alongside some board-related thoughts.


  • Performance support
  • Job aids
  • Content sharing tools 
  • Books, articles, databases, manuals, etc.

If we simply focused on performance support (my biggest "aha" of the year) and expanding the pool of resources available to our boards - or, for that matter, awareness of what's already out there - we'd likely see significant enhancement of governance capacity across the sector and in individual boardrooms. Our board members are smart people who often don't know what they don't know about the volunteer leadership job they take on when they say yes. They often have no idea that resource centers, books, webinars, courses, conferences, blogs like this one, and other sources of support and information exist. They certainly aren't reading journal articles describing governance research or even group behavior.  Or they may know that some of these resources exists, but they are hard-pressed to find the additional time and/or money to take advantage of them.

We need to change that. I'm still working on the "how," but we need to do a better job of both expanding what is widely (and preferably freely) available and increasing awareness of what is available to boards and board leaders everywhere.


  • Peer support
  • Social media networks and forums
  • Coaches and mentors
  • Conferences

My interest in informal and social learning, and the 70:20:10 framework, should be clear by now. Access to the resources above is an excellent starting point. But learning takes hold when we have knowledgeable peers and expert resources to bring it to life. As with the resources list above, a significant first step toward unlocking the full potential of this component is simple awareness of what already exists to support our boards and their leaders and encouragement to use them.

But as I noted in my last post, we also have work to do when it comes to creating and facilitating quality support in this area. It's not enough to just follow the example of the person before you, reproducing the same routines and challenges from board generation to generation. We also need to create and model new examples of high-impact leadership and governance. They want to be better. They want to succeed. They need help understanding what that looks like in this context. And they need supportive networks like the one I described earlier this fall for connecting with, and learning from, those who are leading the way.

Training and education

  • Courses and seminars
  • Post-event support
  • On-the-job training
  • Certifications
  • Academic programs and courses

Yes, yes, yes. We need to provide these experiences for our boards and board leaders. Not all are germane to, or even logical for, every board member. But some can be provided or adapted to fit the needs of those who want to learn more or who aspire to new leadership roles.

Two on Catherine's list - post-event support and on-the-job training - should be natural parts of every board development process. As I described earlier this year, we must do a better job of supporting boards as they attempt to apply what they learn from formal training experiences. We also can be attentive to the opportunities for "on-the-job training" that arise in the course of normal board work. It may not resemble what we normally think of when we hear that term, but it exists and should be part of the natural flow of experiential learning.

There is interest in certificate and academic course experiences. I provide them and regularly find a rich mix of not only nonprofit staff wanting to work more effectively with their boards but board members who desire to understand their responsibilities and rise to their full potential as nonprofit leaders. Demand in the larger board member population may not be massive, but it exists and we need to ensure that they have access to those opportunities. We also can do a better job of creating short-term learning events, e.g., webinars, that address board member interests and needs. (Yep, on my 2016 agenda.)

Development practices 

  • Action learning
  • Stretch assignments
  • Experiential learning
  • Post-action review
  • Cross-training

I've touched on this area superficially this year and across the blog's life. But revisiting this today, I pretty much see the next "learning" phase of my writing here. What sticks out most to me right now is the power represented in the first bullet point. What could happen if boards took charge of their own learning and performance improvement by engaging in action research? What would happen for the sector as a whole if they partnered with a researcher well-versed in qualitative methods to make the most of that experience and shared their findings with others?

What if we created stretch assignments specifically as learning and leadership development experiences and supported them as such?

What if we included learning in our board self-assessments and reflections?

Experiential learning

  • Learning by doing
  • Critical reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Experimentation
  • Creating notes and job aids

Our boards already are engaged in the "learning by doing" element - even if they aren't aware of the "learning" piece of the equation. Many may be engaged in collaborative efforts that can be rich fields for experiential learning - if we are attuned to that potential. Some may experimenting with new ways of working, with new ways of leading, or with new ways of decision making. There's always room for more critical reflection, even among boards that excel at inquiry.

I included the last bullet point for a reason that may not be obvious to many board members, but perhaps should be. One of the ways we learn in other areas of our lives is by creating notes and job aids. We jot down steps to accomplish a task (like the folder I keep showing exactly how to set up a new web page at work). We whip out our phone to take a quick snapshot of how a hobby project is coming together (and maybe share when it isn't, so we can receive advice). We might even record a quick video demonstrating how we want something to be done. Nonprofit boards are eternal entities (or as "eternal" as our organizations), but board members are transient. They come and they go; and when they do the latter, they take their knowledge and organizational history with them. Creating ways for them to capture all - the big and small - that helps them govern more efficiently and effectively in the moment. Creating ways for them to share those aids with each other and with their successors eases the process for the future. I need to sit with this one for a bit to get a better sense of what those aids might look like, but the potential to reduce some of the "reinventing the wheel" that takes place in many boards feels big.

 Learner motivation and self-direction

  • Desire to learn
  • Understanding of how learning fuels performance
  • Confidence in one's ability to learn
  • Self-directedness

Looking back on the learning-related posts written this year - and, frankly, across the life of this "board learning" blog - I must acknowledge that this is mostly uncharted territory here. Most of my focus has been on the board level, and rightly so. That said, we also must acknowledge the obvious: if board members are not motivated to learn about their work and your organization, if they cannot see the connections between that learning and their increased effectiveness, if they don't feel they have the time or ability to commit to what you need them to do, if they are not self-directed enough to do even the basics - like read materials you provide or check out the resources you share - all of this is for nothing.

My default mode is assuming board members are capable and motivated community leaders who rise to our expectations for them. While we must be aware of all four of the factors Catherine lays out, I'm convinced that the biggest challenge for us is the second, understanding how the learning we ask them to do connects to their performance as a governing body and individual members.  The better we facilitate those connections, the more motivated and inspired they will be.

No comments: