Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nonprofit board learning: A few inspiring thoughts from the LSCon backchannel

Because I self-fund my professional development, I participate in most of my favorite conferences by stalking their backchannels. Last week's 2015 Association for Talent Development (ATD) Learning Solutions Conference (#LSCon) was the predictable learning feast, with several notable ideas sparking reflection on this blog's - and this year's - overall theme.

This week, I'd like to share a few of the tweets that caught my eye and offer a brief reflection on how they connect to my thinking about nonprofit board development. Most of that thinking may be familiar to regular readers, but it is helpful for me - as an adult learner - to pause and connect the dots provided in different contexts.

Karen Bowden's tweet leaped out at me immediately, because it basically sums up my entire philosophy of adult learning (AND board development). As an earlier post laid out, simply offering a training session guarantees nothing when it comes to change in board thinking and performance. We must work together to understand what is needed, for what change, with what outcomes that are mutually satisfying for all. This is no less true in nonprofit board learning.

I love pretty much anything that comes from Julian Stodd's keyboard, so I was heartbroken to realize that I was missing a chance to hear him speak. Fortunately,  the backchannel filled with myriad Stodd insights during his session. This one hit home, in part, because of the experience I shared that was tied to my very first board term.

Not all adult learning can be transformative learning (expect at least one post on this topic down the road). But it should be as tied to personal needs and motivations as possible to have the greatest chance for lasting impact. In a nonprofit setting, where missions are compelling, we must help board members make explicit connections between what they need to know and their interests in advancing your mission and your message in the community. Changing the person is a happy bonus.

This is the bottom line, and the motivation for my focus here this year. Learning works when it enhances our performance as a board and expands our capacity to govern effectively. It must change board practice. Training for training's sake is busy work for volunteer leaders. However learning is happening for our governing body, we must connect those results to what matters most. And, yes, we must acknowledge that training isn't the be-all, end-all answer to our board performance needs.

Yup. Do any of those descriptions in Bianca Woods' photo apply to your nonprofit board development efforts? If the answer is yes, what are you going to do to change that?

 Amen.  These three elements - identifying problems that matter, systematically exploring alternatives, and delivering element solutions - really resonated for me as I thought about how we need to approach nonprofit board development. Which leads me to...

Okay, so this is my big dream and my not-so-secret agenda. What would a board learning and performance ecosystem/environment look like? What would it make possible?  This framework comes from the eLearning Guild, an organization of which I am a member.  There is much to like and apply in what you see here. But there also are opportunities to adapt and add elements that specifically target the nonprofit board environment and the needs of nonprofit board members.

What would a nonprofit board learning environment/ecosystem look like? With what impacts on governance performance?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Governance toolbox: March potpourri

This may become a monthly tradition: an interesting mix of resources that could prove useful for our boards and board leaders.

Reach for the stars -- I think I've found a new foundational board resource. I've appreciated the Great Boards newsletter since long before it found a home with the American Hospital Association. Thoughtful articles that spotlight higher-level thinking about governance and board leadership are its hallmark. This is a phenomenal example of the kind of reporting that makes this particular publication so special. Author Pamela Knecht describes five key characteristics of high-performing nonprofit boards - characteristics that promise to raise the level of performance and effectiveness when governing bodies successfully create the environments, and recruit the people, to reach them.

The five missing qualities that every board member MUST have -- Susan Detweiler encourages us to move beyond the common attribute-filled board matrices to identify a set of qualities that she says all board members need to bring to the boardroom (and I would happen to agree). I like two things about this post: one, the specific five qualities that she considers essential to anyone sitting on a nonprofit board; and two, the stretch she asks us to make, away from focusing solely on the kinds of skill and demographic criteria that many boards use when they populate their recruitment matrices. I've written many times before about this topic. Susan's post and list are welcome additions to the conversation about what boards really need to perform at their peak.

Building a powerful fundraising board: three things you need to know -- Tuesday's post prompted a welcome exchange with (and gifts from) Alice Korngold, renowned governance consultant and author. In this Huffington Post piece, she offers a balanced and valued perspective on the critical responsibilities of board members in fundraising processes.

Top nonprofit accounting myths busted --  They're myths we've all encountered (and possibly believed) in our nonprofit board service. This post by Paul Konigstein offers clear, concise counterpoints to each of these common assumptions.

The death of the informational meeting -- This one comes from another area of my life - higher education - but the message is germane to the nonprofit sector. It also fits my not-so-hidden agenda to rethink and restructure our nonprofit board meetings. Author Joshua Kim describes three things that should be happening in meetings and three things that shouldn't be happening. I'm more attracted to the "debate" item on the "should" list, and I would expand it to include peer learning and reflection. The "decisions" item on that same list fits the higher ed setting more than nonprofit boards. Believe me, "paralysis by analysis" is more common in that setting than this one. Boards need to not wallow forever, but they also need to not rush decision making. While not uniformly so, in my experience, the latter is more common in many boards. We need to beef up Kim's debate component to feed the decisions that are made, when they are made. Also, note number one on the "should not" list.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Holding nonprofit boards accountable: Why do we value fundraising over stargazing?

Why is it that, when we lament the failings of our nonprofit boards, we frequently focus on their lack of skills and attention to fundraising? To their inability to fully comprehend our profit and loss statements? To them struggling to predict our financial needs in the next year as illustrated in our proposed budgets?

Why do we not hold them equally accountable for neglecting their duty of imagination? For focusing so much on the grounding aspects of governance that they ignore their equally necessary stargazing responsibilities?

Why do we insist on filling our boards' agendas with the tough and the tedious - and the day to day - and allow them to ignore (or actively lead them away from) their essential roles of defining and advancing the better future that we are called to create?

This week, I am introducing a new group of friends to the revolutionary Governance as Leadership model (and, for some, to nonprofit boards more generally). It's a big stretch, but one I hope grounds our future conversations in a more expansive and appropriate foundation of what boards, and board members, are called to do.

Not unexpectedly, we're getting hung up a bit on a familiar refrain: what about boards who don't live up to their fundraising expectations? Where does fundraising fit into the mix? How do we squeeze all of this "new work" - specifically, the strategic and generative governance modes - around the "real work" of nonprofit boards?

I'm doing my best to respond - and to throw a well-placed monkey wrench into the discussion to stretch our thinking (selling raffle tickets and staffing fundraising events may be tasks boards undertake, but they are not governance tasks. That usually blows everyone's mind.). But it's not an easy case to make at the moment, for at least one reason that will ring true for anyone here who follows sector conversations and prescriptions for nonprofit boards:

We value one set of board responsibilities at the expense of others.

When we insist on filling board agendas with fiduciary mode tasks, we are failing our boards and the communities that we serve. To the extent that our boards know better (and I'm not sure most do), they also fail their communities.

There is nothing magical about any one board model, including Governance as Leadership. The biggest reason I choose GAL for our group's discussion - and why I use it as the foundation for my own thinking, writing, and teaching - is the balanced approach it takes to defining and focusing all of the core responsibilities of nonprofit governance.

The fiduciary mode is as important as the strategic and generative work of governance - but it is not more important. Yet too many of our board job descriptions, our "Five easy steps to..." and our "Ways our boards fail us..." all cling to that narrow definition of what boards do.

The strategic and generative responsibilities of governance don't go away just because we choose to ignore them. They are real. They are unique to the board. They are essential to the success of our nonprofits and the health and well being of the communities we serve.

How do we raise the profile and the value of these modes of governing - and the work that comes with them - to a level equal to the fiduciary function? How do we finally give them equal time within our board meetings, rather than confine them to retreats and other special events?

How does the sector do a better job of not only creating a more expansive vision of nonprofit governance, but also making that vision actionable and accessible to the local boards who need it most? I can tell you, from interacting with community groups and from reviewing data from last year's national board chairs survey, that we're failing completely when it comes to reaching those who most desperately need - and want - a new way of thinking about nonprofit governance.

Yes, want. Because let's be frank: we may know that the fiduciary roles come with the job. We may accept that we have some role in fundraising processes. But virtually none of us sign up for nonprofit boards to spend two or more years in "monitor" or "money" mode.

We say yes to board service for the chance to have some role - even a small one - in making the world a better place to live. That doesn't happen in fiduciary mode. It may help support an environment for change, but it does not create that change. Impact happens when we are generating new questions about what the future looks like and in thinking and planning strategically to make the answers to those questions possible.

We want and need to be stargazers. We want and need to fully live up to our duty of imagination. And guess what: when we do, when we are energized by the work and excited about the difference we're making as a result, our willingness and capacity to reach out to donors and others on your behalf will skyrocket.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Governance toolbox: The Gene Takagi effect

A favorite Twitter acquaintance, nonprofit law expert Gene Takagi, provided the links and the inspiration for this week's resources. As I was reviewing my most recent resources saved for sharing with you, Gene's dominance on that list stood out.

If you do not already follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the excellent blog where he does a lot of his public writing, you must do so. Today.

Independent Sector’s Principles for Good Governance -- Hopefully, you've read (or at least heard about) Independent Sector's updated "Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice." If not, or if you're simply in need of a good primer for sharing with your board, Gene provides a great foundation in this post. You'll see a link to an overview from Independent Sector. 

7 reasons to review your bylaws now --  This post, published on LinkedIn, addresses one of the foundations of nonprofit board work: the document that defines the core responsibilities of governance. Reviewing our bylaws is not a particularly sexy topic, but it's one to which boards must attend. One, we need to know what's in there and understand how it drives the core processes of our governing. Two, it reminds us that processes change and sometimes no longer reflects the ways in which we can and should work. Gene offers a valuable guide - and inspiration - for reviewing this core governance document.

Why nonprofit governance is different than for-profit governance -- Another post shared on LinkedIn, this one provides two benefits. It explains key differences between nonprofit and corporate governance. It also offers a nice little encapsulation of what makes our work unique. Oh, and the reference to one of my favorite works by the marvelous Lucy Marcus (Grounding and Stargazing!) was a nice little embedded treat.

Nonprofit radio: Board calendars -- This post includes two items of note on a topic boards should be considering: a link to a post that Gene co-authored with Michele Berger and a web link to the iTunes version of a recent episode of Nonprofit Radio where Gene discussed it. Look for episode 228 and listen to Gene's conversation with host Tony.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Learning for performance: Building a case for more effective nonprofit board development

"Our board stinks at..." "The board just doesn't understand..." "The board needs to be more effective at doing..."

I know! Let's schedule a training!

Does that string of thoughts sound familiar? If you're a board member, board leader, nonprofit CEO, or board trainer, the answer most likely is yes. Training is the 800-lb. metaphorical gorilla in the "board effectiveness" room. Somebody's not quite operating up to snuff, and our natural response is to send him/her off to training. Or, in the case of our board, we bring in an expert to provide the training for them. (In two hours or less - and pro bono - please!)

That'll fix the problem. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not.

Recently, as I was reading Nigel Paine's excellent new book,  The Learning Challenge,  I ran across one scenario that will ring familiar in many a nonprofit setting. Paine is describing a setting that illustrates "the conspiracy of convenience." It describes a private sector organization, but it is a situation completely germane to the way we often approach our board development efforts.

When performance was poor in a part of the organization, the manager in charge of that area could avoid any deep analysis by asking for 'training.' The training manager, seeing an opportunity to engage with the business, delivered a programme that appeared to address the deficit or problem. No one measured what took place...Evidence of business impact was ignored, and yet the operational manager felt that he or she had responded to a business need. Everyone was happy and nothing much changed. (p. 76)

We may feel good about offering that training. Board members may feel great about extending their commitment by giving up a couple more hours to learn. That's all wonderful. But simply offering, or sitting through, a training session guarantees nothing more than those good feelings. Just ask the folks in Paine's example.

Do we fall into that same trap when it comes to nonprofit board development? Only you and your board members know for sure. My outsider's guess, though, is that you've never really had that conversation.

My own conceptions of how we measure the authentic impacts of training and other learning experiences are constantly evolving. Describing and refining all that learning assessment entails is far too ambitious for one post (I feel a sub-theme coming on...), but I can offer a few thoughts to begin what I anticipate will be a recurring conversation across the rest of the year.

My (evolving) necessary elements for changing board performance


 Clarity about what "board performance" looks like:
  • What is expected of everyone (e.g., what's in the job description)?
  • What constitutes optimal performance? What's happening - for the community, for the organization, for the board, for individual members - when the board is operating at peak levels?
  • How is the board held accountable (by itself and others) for that performance? *

Clarity about the issue being addressed:
  • What is the problem/opportunity?
  • According to whom?
  • Does everyone else agree?
  • What is the board's role in addressing it?
  • Does the board have the capacity/skills/information it needs to address it?
  • How do we close the gaps between what the board needs to engage and what it currently has available?

Clarity about the best way(s) to close the board's performance gap:
  • Is training really the best/most effective option?
  • Are there other ways to (a) close the gap or (b) support application of any training that occurs?
  • How will we provide this support to the board?
  • Who is best qualified to help us?

Clarity about outcomes: *
  • What are the outcomes we expect from the experience? What will be different? For whom?
  • How will the board know it has succeeded? What are the benchmarks, quantitative AND qualitative, that we will use?
  • How will we tie these outcomes to critical organizational and board outcomes? (e.g., tied to strategic plan outcomes, advances board goals, fulfills board job description elements)

Obviously, this is more of an invitation to conversation than a solution to all board performance problems. (I was serious about that series-within-a-series.)  But it's a conversation we need to be having, especially if we are committed to improving and supporting board performance.

It is not enough to simply bask in the feel-good experience of surviving another training. We've all sat through training sessions that changed absolutely nothing, so we know this is true. We need to be deliberate in identifying what really needs to change and what aspect of that change really belongs to the board (be sure it's actually a "board problem" before you attempt to fix it). We need clarity about how we will not just hold the board accountable for improved performance but how we will support that effort and help ensure their success.

What am I missing? What do your own experiences tell you are the bigger challenges to board performance effectiveness? What can we do, today, to support our boards?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'm creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Governance toolbox: Organizational culture

This week's shared resources address various aspects of boardroom/group behavior.

When "nice" is wrong --  My friend Max is on a roll. This week's post raises a larger question that I've been asking for more than a year: Why do so many bright people turn into such boneheads when they enter a nonprofit boardroom? (My paraphrase. Max is much nicer than I am.) Max not only addresses factors that contribute to that phenomenon, he offers three excellent recommendations for creating a different kind of work environment.  Number two, board assessment, is a particularly undervalued vehicle for sparking reflection and honest conversation about boardroom behaviors that impede the work of governance.

How scarcity thinking holds nonprofits back -- Nell Edgington's latest post compares two types of mindsets that shape the thinking - and, ultimately, the outcomes of that thinking - within the sector. She draws on Carol Dweck's pivotal work on growth vs. fixed mindsets to explain how nonprofit organizations become so wrapped up in "scarcity thinking" that they end up wallowing and unable to access the kinds of stretch thinking (growth mindset) required to actually make an impact. She offers illustrations of ways in which a shift in mindset facilitates the kinds of discussions and actions that lead to change. Coincidentally, I'd bookmarked another post that shared this same illustration of Dweck's mindsets for sharing with you.

Protecting against groupthink: 17 techniques -- This is an excellent "how to" post that offers the promised strategies for avoiding or overcoming one of the more difficult challenges found in group work.

 How to ask better questions -- Writer Stephanie Vozza offers five tips for posing the kinds of questions that spark creative, challenging, inclusive questions. Hopefully, those five tips will feel obvious to you as you read them. But this article is a good reminder of the importance of posing thoughtful questions, especially from a leadership position.

5 power tips for powerful decisions -- How often do our boards feel pressured to make a decision, any decision, quickly? How much time do we give them to really sit with a potential decision before making it? There is much to like about Dan's tips in this post. Like the previous resource, some of what Dan shares may seem obvious. But it's good to articulate as reminders to respect the value - and impact - of the decisions we make. P.S. I really like number three.

Why listening might be the most important skill a leader has -- "Shut up. Just listen. Really listen." Blunt, but true. If effective nonprofit governance is grounded in great questions, there is an inevitable corollary: listening deeply and attentively to what is shared. That capacity to listen is important for any board member, but it is especially critical to leaders charged with facilitating the discussions and decisions that emerge from that listening. Not so much a "tool" as a timely culture-related reminder.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Nonprofit board committees as learning centers: Creating, fostering shared expertise

Nonprofit board committees contain so much untapped potential - especially as learning centers that feed high-quality, high-impact governance processes and decisions.

As I closed last week's post, describing one particularly vivid example from my own board experiences, I knew that some aspects of what I described would feel out of reach to many readers. Most nonprofits do not have the kind of supportive national infrastructure that provided several of the components that I described as important to my learning and service in that role.

Comparable experiences exist in, or can be built into, committee work. Still, I feared that my references to national support received in that specific setting might lead some readers to discount the example as not applicable to their committee reality. That prompted a question: what are the more universally true aspects of committee work that foster the best learning opportunities for every member?

Let's start with a couple of observations about board committees.

First, board committees make the governance task manageable. They allow boards to break the work and the deeper thinking required for effective leadership and oversight into manageable segments. Becoming expert in all aspects of nonprofits, individual missions, leadership, and governance is a full-time job expected of part-time volunteers. Committees allow individual members to become the board's peer experts on specific aspects of the larger set of responsibilities. In that context, committees become incubators for researching and creating usable knowledge for the board as a whole.

Second, when they are focused on board responsibilities - not staff functions - committees become the engines for initiating the work of governance. One of the biggest mistakes many boards make (and the biggest missed opportunity for board learning) is setting up committee structure to mirror staff functions (e.g., personnel, finance, marketing). That unfortunate tradition invites micromanagement and distracts from the work boards should be doing. (See an earlier post here for my recommendations on the types of committees that facilitate governance.)

If we respect board committees for their potential and we focus their attention on work that supports core governance functions, what types of learning can - and should - be taking place in the work that they do?  What do they require to foster the kind of learning that prepares them for success? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me.

Board committees need clear charges: what is expected of them, how those expectations will feed board knowledge and work, how they will be evaluated on their progress toward fulfilling what is asked of them. They need structural and human support to accomplish all of that.

Committees can provide peer training and other foundational knowledge support to help educate the board and prepare the larger body to make the best decisions possible in the committee's responsibility area. Charging each committee with becoming the board's peer experts empowers them to dig deeper and share broadly what they learn in the process to expand everyone's understanding.  It also alleviates some of the anxiety that we all can experience when we think about the breadth of responsibilities that board members assume.

To be successful in fulfilling those responsibilities, our board committees need, at minimum, access to information about

  • our organization
  • our mission area
  • their broader committee charge area (e.g., effective resource development practices or community outreach).

Most of the resources they need should be available on demand, e.g., available via a board/committee portal, found on curated web sources, provided in manuals and other tangible assets that can be accessed in the moment of learning need.

Committees need access to internal and external experts who can provide not only information but guidance on direction, questions to pose, potential challenges, and interesting opportunities. These human resources may include (but not be limited to) program staff, organizational management, local experts, university or community college faculty and resources, national/parent organization staff, peers in comparable organizations - and, of course, each other.

If available, they need access to broader peer networks (e.g., the grants committee listserv I mentioned last week) that can provide information, examples, empathy and general support.

Board committees need time to explore, research, deliberate, and formulate their key ideas and recommendations that they will share with their fellow board members. Then they need time to facilitate thoughtful conversations with the larger group and to give the latter the time it needs to question, provide feedback, reflect, and make the best decision possible.

They need access formal learning opportunities - e.g., training sessions, conferences, webinars, and courses - that cover their responsibility areas or practices that enhance committee/group effectiveness.

Obviously, while I'm attempting to create a more concrete sense of what board committees need to make the most of their learning potential, the ideas shared above remain general enough that what they look like in one organization may translate into something completely different in another. That's good - and completely appropriate. I offer these suggestions as a basic framework and an invitation to readers to help me fill in the gaps. What am I missing? What kinds of examples do you have from your board committee experiences?

As I have with all of the previous "board learning environment" posts, I'll close with some questions for reflection:

  • What specific learning needs to your committees have to help them fulfill the responsibilities they have accepted?
  • What sources do you need to create, or locate, to support those learning needs?
  • How can you create a sense of purpose and respect for the kinds of expertise that your committees have, and can create, to support the larger governance process?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Governance toolbox: Bringing meaning, creativity into the nonprofit boardroom

A new post from a good friend provided the inspiration for this week's toolbox set.

Unbox your board!  -- Max Freund, brings one of our favorite topics - generative governance - into the spotlight in  his latest post. He makes a great case for infusing meaningful, creative work into board meetings, drawing on Chait, Ryan and Taylor's seminal work, Governance as Leadership. What makes this a perfect toolbox entry are the activities and questions that he shares to operationalize that. He doesn't just encourage us to operate in generative mode, he gives us several starting points.

7 surprisingly simple ways to improve board meetings --  I picked up a couple of new ideas reading this brief Wild Apricot article! When we hear a call to transform the way we govern, the mind frequently turns to major change initiatives. That may, indeed, end up being what is required as a whole. But the journey can start with one or two simple steps to change the way we meet and work. Much like Max's recommendations, this post offers realistic and actionable ideas for beginning that process.

The good thing about bad ideas -- Isn't the goal to minimize bad ideas in the nonprofit boardroom? What do you mean, explore those bad ideas? As a facilitator who serves boards, and observes boards, I appreciate the novel approach posed in this brief "Heart of Innovation" post. I can easily see introducing it to shake off the cobwebs, get unstuck, and begin to rethink the kind of tough challenge (or great opportunity) that boards often face. I wouldn't use it as a routine practice, but I definitely can see using this as a prompt to spark a re-assessment and open the door for new perspective(s).

10 questions you want to hear board members ask -- Some of the questions are more germane to its target audience, corporate boards, than to a nonprofit setting. But virtually all have the potential to focus board member attention on areas fostering high-impact governance performance. I'd like to point out those that feel most novel or important: (3) Are we doing committee work at the board table? (4) How will we measure success? and my favorite (5) Is this discussion in the weeds?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Learning through nonprofit board committee work: One multilayered,embedded example

Formal learning experiences in nonprofit board development are great. The kinds of rich, immersive volunteer experiences like the one I described last week are fantastic. But the truth is that most of the learning that actually takes place within the governance experience is more subtle, layered, social, and occasionally invisible.

As I sat down to sketch out a more realistic example of "experiential board learning," a surprising thing unfolded. The evidence I generated from that example not only illustrates multiple informal/experiential learning tasks, but it also offers great representation of the triple-mode phenomenon (informal, social, formal) represented in the 70:20:10 framework that I described in an earlier post in this series. That was a pleasant, affirming surprise as I revisited another of the richest learning (and service) experiences of my nonprofit governance life.

The scenario

Like last week's vignette, this learning journey accompanied one of my least traditional invitations to board service. I already was a seasoned volunteer for the organization when the call came. Both parties knew my commitment to the mission and the nonprofit extending the invitation going in. What I did not expect was a part B to the request: would I also assume leadership of the board's grants committee?

Insanity, right? Of course it was. I said yes.

Because I spent my earlier volunteer experience working on one side of the mission, I saw this request as a chance to extend my learning to the other. How did the results of my previous efforts end up impacting lives and communities?

The biggest reason I said yes was knowing that our local nonprofit, and the larger international system of which it was a part, offered phenomenal support mechanisms. I would not be in this alone. They'd provide the essentials. The rest, well, I'd make up - and learn from - on the go.

What follows is the multilayered learning process that took me from "Am I nuts?!" to "We are doing good and even life-saving work, and I am helping to lead the way." I've organized the components into "most central" and "supportive elements" lists. In honor of the unexpected 70:20:10 finding, I'm also tagging each component according to the type of learning it represents.

Most central learning elements

The parent organization's multi-day grants process training. Formal learning experiences have their place in adult learning. This event confirmed that for me. Its role was quite specific and completely germane to my learning needs. It offered foundational information to someone new to the topic (virtually every participant in the room, including me). This event clarified what was expected of us. It introduced the supportive systems - resources and people - available to us as we returned home. It also laid the groundwork for developing a network of peers with whom we could consult in the future, launched during the open spaces that facilitated conversation and connection. (formal, social)

Our local executive director. This individual was a lifeline in my role as grants committee chairperson (and every other aspect of my board work). She shared her own experiences in the local grantmaking process. She understood the mechanics, the "politics," the people, and the outcomes; and she shared all of that openly with my fellow grants committee members and me. (social)

Grants committee members. As a new member, I relied heavily on my more experienced peers to understand the committee's responsibilities. The ED offered one important perspective. My fellow committee members provided another. Over time, I became their equal and a seasoned mentor to those who joined later. Learning came in the form of direct advice/information shared and in collaboration to create and implement the annual selection process. (informal, social)

Our grant review panel.  A select team of mission area experts, this group offered a level of informed critique that added integrity to the grantmaking process. While my fellow committee members and I developed a certain level of understanding and an eye for specific requirements, the grant review panel took the process to a deeper level. Members analyzed whether proposals made good methodological sense and whether the promised outcomes matched the practice described. Their specific expertise also gave them insights into details that my board committee peers and I often lacked the background to see. I learned from panel members, not only in our annual selection meeting, but in reading their individual reviews. (informal, social)

Grants process manual/portal. The parent nonprofit offered multiple performance support mechanisms. Two of the most important for me were the grants manual - originally obtained in hard copy format at the training - and an always evolving grants web portal. Both offered information whenever I needed it (in-the-moment learning, aka performance support). The manual's information was, obviously, somewhat static; but I usually found the answer to my question within its pages. The portal was more dynamic, with new resources being added almost daily. It eventually became my first-stop, go-to source for learning in my grants role. (informal)

Headquarters grants support staff. The parent organization also offered human support, in the form of staff assigned to the grants function. Usually, our ED initiated contact with these individuals on our behalf. But I also had the opportunity to make that contact and to interact once the conversation was open via email or phone. If we had a question we couldn't answer locally, one way or another, the parent nonprofit had it. (social)

Local needs assessment and other raw data sources. To understand how best to target grantmaking, our committee relied on two sources of data. One was a commissioned needs assessment, conducted using a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods. The other was a mix of secondary data sources provided by other organizations and government agencies tracking our mission area. We used both to identify the most critical need areas and to make informed decisions about annual grant criteria. (informal)

Grantee reports. Grant recipients submitted two reports each year, one at mid-year and one at the end of the grant cycle. Reading and responding to those reports allowed the committee to respond to evolving circumstances and to understand the real impacts and challenges experienced by grant recipients. We learned by simply reading and reflecting on those reports. Sometimes, they served as prompts for follow-up conversations and requests for more information. (informal)

Secondary learning sources

Grants listserv. I mentioned the opening of a supportive peer network in my description of the grants training. The primary vehicle facilitating that was the grants teams listserv that the parent organization maintained. Local grants committee members and EDs connected to each other, and to HQ grants experts, via this email resource. It gave us access to a broader peer network (and the experts), inviting us to ask for examples, advice, etc., from others engaged in the same local work.  (informal)

Learning from unexpected outcomes. I hesitate to call them "mistakes," but things didn't always work out as we anticipated in the grants process. Committee members and the ED (and, if necessary, the board) discussed those experiences, analyzed potential reasons for the unexpected outcomes, learned from those reflections, and applied what we learned to the next time we engaged in that activity. (informal)

Exploration of on- and offline mission resources. Sometimes, I just wanted to know more about our mission area. As a reader, I pretty much sought out any written source I could find to help me understand the many facets of our mission. A wealth of information existed at the time, primarily in print publications and web resources. I still keep up on the topic, though now mostly via trusted social media outlets. (informal)

Whew. When I decided to write about this particular board experience, I thought my emphasis would be on the doing. Instead, as I lined up the evidence, I realized that my learning was far more multifaceted and embedded - and rich - than I realized.

That is a good thing. It offers even more convincing evidence of the point I hoped to make: that learning exists everywhere in the nonprofit board experience. We may not realize it. We may not appreciate it as a learning opportunity in the moment (or at all). But it is there. We boost its developmental potential when we take a step back to see, appreciate and support it. We also must let go of the notion that board development only happens within formal training events.

Some questions for reflection:

  • What kinds of experiences are embedded within the work that our board members do? 
  • What kinds of learning emerges from those experiences, and how does that learning shape their performance?
  • What can we do to enhance the quality of learning that takes place within those experiences?
  • What's possible if we focus on doing that?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'm creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.