Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Nonprofit board learning environments: Defining a few personal takeaways

While contributing to the larger conversation about board learning was my major goal here this year, expanding my own understanding was an inevitable and welcome outcome. Today, I offer a few insights on some personal takeaways and how they transformed and informed my thinking and practice.

It's about performance and performance support. This shifted everything for me. I didn't enter 2015 with performance specifically on the agenda, but its importance in providing the context for board learning emerged early and assumed a central place in pretty much everything learning related that was shared here.

In the end, it's all about performance.

  • Do our boards really understand what we expect of them? Of each other? 
  • Do they make the connection between the learning that we ask of them and the performance outcomes that we expect?
  • Can they demonstrate and articulate their impact as a result of their performance?

Performance needs to be the explicit foundation for everything we do and discuss in board development. We need to frame development/learning goals within the context of performance and performance support. We need to shape learning initiatives through a performance lens if we expect boards to respond and perform as we need them them to do.

These conversations need to happen not only at the individual board level but at a broader sector and subsector level. What does nonprofit governance performance look like, with what impacts? No one, universal answer is likely; but greater clarity among everyone involved - including and especially board members themselves - can only facilitate the kinds of actions and impacts needed from these volunteer leaders.

Training in perspective. I already knew that training was only one part of the board learning environment (and a relatively small one at that). Breaking down the persistent stereotype that learning=training was, to be honest, a major goal for the year. But having opportunities to think more expansively, through different adult learning lenses, brought that into clearer view. Having to apply those lenses, and articulate how they've been demonstrated in different settings I've encountered, deepened my understanding of what is possible in board development if we expand our definition and practice beyond the usual formal modes. My affinity for the 70:20:10 framework is a reflection of that - not as a magic formula, but an acknowledgment that learning is an inevitable and rich part of our lives that takes many forms.

More board learning research needed. While the governance research community is a robust one, very little of the work emerging from it focuses specifically on board learning and development. My primary theoretical perspective, and research so far, lies in adult learning. Over the years, I've certainly accumulated a long list of research "to dos" in this area. It's probably inevitable that immersing myself in board learning environment topics here naturally expanded that list.

Because academia is not my full-time home, my individual capacity to address those research needs is limited. I need help. I'm realizing that, as stimulating as it is to interact in my governance scholar community, the real outreach here needs to happen on the adult learning side. More adult education scholars need to see the potential in studying nonprofit boards and their development processes.  How I go about building those connections at this point is a personal challenge that I need to consider in 2016.

Speaking of research...

Power in revisiting and sharing my own work. I'd written about the case study findings that became my doctoral dissertation early in the blog's life. (I launched this site as I was completing data collection and writing the dissertation.) Sharing my findings when they were fresh helped me process and connect them to other settings. But two things were true in 2009. One, I had far fewer readers who could benefit from the information. Two, I still was too close to the experience to fully grasp what those practice connections might really be.

Re-examining that work in a year focused on board learning environments made sense. What I didn't expect was the positive response (both social media interactions and page views) from a broader audience. I also underestimated the personal value of reflection fueled by additional years of experience and study. I took a blank slate approach to writing the posts this year about key findings from that research, analyzing and applying them through wiser and more experienced eyes rather than simply rewriting the original posts.

The true shock? Response to a summertime, mid-week "learning theory to governance practice" series. I'd long wished that I could translate some of the key theoretical perspectives that formed my literature review into governance practice ideas. But I hesitated, fearing that diving too deeply into the theoretical pond might alienate readers - not that it would be over your heads, but that you'd find no practical value in the exercise.

Because offering a theoretical foundation felt like an essential part of the year's focus, I took the plunge. To say that I was shocked by interest in those posts would be an understatement. Not only did readers not avoid those entries, you apparently brought friends. Page views skyrocketed with each successive series post. What I took away from that observation was affirmation of my default assumptions about my readers, and nonprofit board members generally. You're smart, dedicated community leaders who want to be stretched in ways that enhance your effectiveness and impact. We should never, ever talk down to you. You want to understand the context and information that increases your leadership effectiveness.

And finally, a logical next step...

There is a need for, and openness to, practice-focused translation and application of governance research. I've known that for as long as I've been studying nonprofit boards. But the reception that posts related to my research, and to adult learning perspectives shared across the year, affirmed that.

While I'll never turn this site into a theoretical swampland, I now have a vision of how social platforms like this blog can help bridge the governance theory/practice divide. Early efforts to use Blab to introduce readers to expert researcher friends and their work is one novel (for me, at least) way to facilitate that bridge. A renewed commitment to exploring practice-friendly ways to share both governance and adult learning research is a welcome outcome for me. I started this blog on that premise. After this year, I'm seeing an expanded potential for that work.

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