Thursday, December 31, 2015

Nonprofit board learning environments: Some lingering questions and 2016 to dos


I may have committed officially to spending 2015 here exploring nonprofit board learning environments, but the journey began the day this blog was launched and will last as long as this particular space exists. 

The more I wrote this year, and the deeper the reflection process went this week, the more questions and "must writes" emerged. While the intense focus this year expanded my thinking (and, hopefully, your understanding), it inevitably sparked a few lingering questions. I can almost guarantee that those questions to be covered here in 2016 and beyond. Frankly, it is my quest of a lifetime and this is the venue where much of it can unfold.

Some of the lingering questions on my mind today:

How can I continue to develop performance and performance support as useful board concepts? The more I explore the concept of performance, the more convinced I am that it provides a key piece of not only the board learning puzzle but the board effectiveness equation as well. The greater the connection made between learning and performance - in ways that are meaningful to our boards - the greater the potential that they will successfully meet those expectations.

How do we assess learning and performance in a board setting? We need to develop research-driven baselines for understanding how learning takes place and how it feeds governance performance. We also need practice-friendly assessment processes - informed by that research - that acknowledge the role that learning in all forms plays in board and board member effectiveness.

How do we facilitate rich environments where informal and social learning can flourish? Board capacity builders still have work to do to enhance the learning outcomes (and develop more realistic expectations) for formal board development events, but most in the sector have a general idea of what they look like and how they function. What we clearly need is greater appreciation for the informal experiences that both naturally occur in governance and that can be introduced and facilitated more thoughtfully as part of what boards do. We also need to appreciate and facilitate the kinds of peer learning and support that take place - and that we can develop more deliberately.

How do we foster cross-board and sector-level social learning, mentoring and coaching? In addition to expanding the pool of supportive resources available to all, we also need to create opportunities to break the dysfunctional cycle of repeating what our predecessors did before us. We need to create ways to introduce new models, new ways of working, and new examples of what effective nonprofit governance can look like. 

How to we (I?) spark interest in studying learning in a nonprofit board context among adult learning scholars? We need the expertise of researchers and practitioners in that field to inform our understanding and practice about nonprofit board development and performance.

What is my next research step? Not working full time in academia, where research is both expected and supported, adds to my personal challenge of finding time and energy to embark on new intellectual initiatives. That said, I accept my responsibility as an adult educator working with nonprofit boards to find a way to make that happen. The most likely next step - one that will add to sector understanding and inform my consulting and teaching in the future - is a project I've discussed with peers here: a learning needs assessment targeting Wyoming nonprofit board chairs.

How can I continue to share research - governance and adult learning - in practice-friendly ways? Text-based efforts like this summer's theory to governance practice series offer one option. So does continuing to use video tools like Blab to bring researcher friends and their work to readers here. Whatever the form taken, this feels like a strong need to address in 2016.

What learning experiences am I positioned to offer in 2016? How can I adapt my learning facilitation skills to create new experiences for nonprofit board members? How can I get over whatever hurdles are keeping me from offering what I know I am capable of providing? 

How do we cultivate, prepare, and support board leaders? Working on the research team behind the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey certainly feeds this interest, but I've long understood the need to do a better job of preparing and supporting our board leaders. It's more than knowing how to put together a stimulating agenda. It's about articulating a richer vision of board leadership, one that understands how to bring out the best in our members.

How do we increase awareness, accessibility, and motivation to use the resources that already exist for nonprofit boards? While the need to expand the conversation about what it means to govern and what we need from our boards to achieve the outcomes we desire, the fact is that a wide and rich pool of resources already exist that many board members and board leaders simply aren't accessing. It's one of the findings of the board chair data that troubles me most. Clearly, this one requires more than what I can accomplish here (though I'll continue to share quality resources from others as I find them). But the question remains and is more challenging than it probably should be.

So there it is. The last post of a blogging year focused on a critically important topic. Articulating these questions is the final part of the reflection and closure process for me. It also offers some stepping stones for what comes next. What is that "next?" I'll share my 2016 theme and some of the inevitable agenda items in Monday's post. Thanks for joining me on the adventure of the last year. I hope you'll be part of whatever unfolds in the year to come.

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