Wednesday, July 20, 2016

One board thing: Set annual learning goals

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Set annual individual and group board learning goals

What does your board need to know/do to fully live up to its governance and leadership expectations? What do members need to know/do to understand your organization, your programs, your mission more fully? What do members need to know/do to engage more effectively with your community and your key stakeholders?

If you followed last year's "Nonprofit Board Learning Environments" series here - or spend any time on this site - the recommendation to identify annual individual and collective learning needs comes as no surprise. I've recommended setting annual board development goals here in the past. I'm not the first nonprofit consultant/educator to recommend setting those benchmarks. It is sound advice, and one board thing with great potential impact on your governing body's effectiveness.

But I have a twist for you today. Rather than take the common approach of translating board development into "board training," think about ways in which you can use the concepts behind the 70:20:10 framework of adult learning to create meaningful, performance-related goals that actually enhance the way your group governs.

The premise of the 70:20:10 framework is that adults learn in three basic ways:

  • By informal learning (experience)
  • By social learning (exposure)
  • By formal learning (education)

The 70:20:10 represents the rough percentages of time spent actually learning in each mode. Whether the numbers shake out exactly that way, consensus continues to grow that the message behind them is accurate: we learn far more often - and far better - through experience. We learn by trying, working, observing, making mistakes, and reflecting on our experiences. We also learn by working with, and from, others - mentors, peers, coaches, staff, etc.

And, finally, we learn from training and other formal educational experiences. But take note of those numbers: the formal processes that so many of us rely upon for board development probably are the least valuable for actually changing or enhancing board behavior. That doesn't mean there isn't a legitimate role for formal training. But that role may be more narrow than the space we create for it.

I've offered detailed examples of each type of learning elsewhere (click HERE to read that post.) For today, I will encourage you to draw from this perspective to identify group and individual member goals. Here are a few recommendations to consider as you develop that list.

  • Because learning never stops and learning needs never end, identifying annual development goals is important to the board's success. What are the current issues, challenges, interests - right now - that will impact how you govern in the future? What is the gap between what you know and can do right now and what you will need to know and do in the next year?
  • Learning targets always must be tied to the board's broader goals and responsibilities.
  • As you set goals, remember that boards typically have four types of learning needs: about your organization and programs, about your broader mission area, about governance, and about effective group dynamics.
  • Learning is more than adding and storing knowledge in our heads (hence, the know/do references).  In the end, what matters is board performance. That means, among other things, that our board's capacity to act in new and more effective ways must also grow. It is the ultimate learning goal.
  • Some needs are primarily informational. That is where training can be an appropriate answer. If the topic is new to the group, or a subset of the board, scheduling a training session is an okay response. 
  • Include follow-up support and activities for each training event. (Click HERE to read a related post.)
  • Group and individual goals frequently will overlap, but individual goals may also be more specific to a member's roles and member knowledge gaps. For example, new members will continue to have specific needs to understand and experience your work and your mission in deeper and more vivid ways. A new board treasurer may benefit from additional learning and coaching regarding financial processes more generally and your financial data specifically.
  • You have expertise on the board itself. Identify opportunities for member experts to provide leadership in meeting learning goals in their knowledge/skill areas.
  • The power of informal learning cannot be understated. As you identify your board's capacity needs, look for ways to not just send them to a website or hand them a book to read (or schedule a training). Look for ways to immerse them in a setting that brings that learning to life. 
  • For example, find ways to bring members into your work - via volunteer experience, observation, or other first-hand engagement - if the identified need is to understand your work more fully. If members are unsure about their ability to effectively articulate your mission impact, provide training focused on public speaking or marketing and follow up with multiple opportunities to practice sharing your story with others.
  • Another example: if your board chair is new, find ways to connect him/her with peers to talk about and explore common challenges and questions. Seek opportunities to see how other boards work and how other board leaders facilitate governance work. 
  • As you set up committee charges for the year, include goals that require research that both informs their work and provides an opportunity to share with the rest of the board.(Click HERE for more detail on the role of committees as learning labs and HERE for a personal example.)
  • Extend the board's knowledge of your mission and programs by finding (appropriate) opportunities to interact with staff and volunteers. For example, include staff on board committees and task forces where their expertise and knowledge overlap with group charges. Invite staff to attend select board meetings to share information and insights. Encourage your development director to work with the board as a whole and coach individual members to support their fundraising responsibilities.
  • Schedule the learning experiences that need to happen. If you don't, they can too easily slip away amidst the day-to-day and "urgent" tasks that tend to consume a board's time. 
  • As with other goals, include periodic check-ins to identify progress made, update goals as needed, and otherwise reinforce that tending to board development is a priority. Because it is. A bonus: reflecting on our experiences, good and bad, is a form of learning.

This list is far from complete, but I hope it offers a broader starting point for anticipating, identifying, and fulfilling the learning needs of the community leaders who govern your organization. The next time you set board learning goals, try to do so with an eye toward the "experience-exposure-education" mix.

NOTE: The "one board thing" series is designed to remind boards that enhancing governance effectiveness and satisfaction often can be sparked by fairly simple adjustments to the ways in which they work. For quick access to series posts, visit my "One Board Thing" Pinterest board.

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