Monday, August 29, 2016

The board chair experience: How helpful were common information sources?

Information sources

How helpful were the following sources of information in preparing for your role as board chair?

This question, part of the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management's national survey of board leaders, was one of the most intriguing for me as an adult educator. What commonly available sources of information do our board chairs find most helpful? The resulting data were eye-opening, but not necessarily for the reasons I expected.

The research team debated this one for awhile; I'm not sure we reached official consensus on how to interpret. While I'm not alone in this interpretation, what follows represents my understanding of responses to this survey item - and the question that remains for me today.

If we combine the "very helpful" and "helpful" columns, four sources rise to the top (although none of them reaches more than 50 percent):

  • The Internet (41.84 percent)
  • Local workshops (36.9 percent)
  • Books I purchased (33.28 percent) 
  • Magazines/journals (26.45 percent)

If we add "somewhat helpful" responses,  the top four remain the same, although "books" and "local workshops" flip positions.

That those particular sources were popular were not surprising, generally speaking - though I'm interested in more detail about the magazines and journals they found helpful, since practitioner-focused nonprofit/governance resources are not plentiful. Are they reading scholarly journals and, if so, how are they accessing them since they generally are subscription-based (and not inexpensive)?

Now, most of us have a path to those journals through our local or academic libraries (even if we don't realize it, e.g., through interlibrary loan). That brings me to one of the more puzzling items in this table. However we combine the responses, libraries - free and widely available sources of information - pretty much fall on the bottom of the list. For example, "very helpful" and "somewhat helpful"  responses combined amounted to only 5.88 percent. If we added the "somewhat" category, that rises to a whopping 11.09 percent.

If we spend a minute pondering why that might be, we could end up discovering what I consider to be one of the more intriguing stories emerging from this question (and one the research team spent a lot of time discussing). The "aha" for me came when I looked at the far-right column, "not applicable." My reading on the "not applicable" responses is not that those sources were tried and not helpful, but that they were not accessed in the first place. With that reading, the bigger story for libraries - and most others - was that survey respondents didn't use them in their search for information about board leadership.

I see 72.44 percent of respondents who did not go to their local library in their search for resources. Not that they went and didn't find anything of value (in my reading, that's the 16.47 percent responding "not at all helpful"). They did not go. Now, we didn't probe for detail behind that or any other "not applicable" response. There are no judgments to be made when we scan that column and see numbers that are for the most part larger than most or all of the others combined for each item. It simply is. From a board development/capacity building stance, it does raise questions about how we both expand leadership development offerings and reach those who would most benefit from them. If we build it, there's a good chance that they won't come (at least on their own).

I continue to ponder this survey item, the practice implications it introduces, and the questions it raises. We clearly have some work to do as a sector, in terms of creating and facilitating access to  high-quality sources of information and support for our board leaders. We also should stop and consider whether what we are offering is not only easy to find but ultimately useful to our intended audiences. (As someone who writes for this audience, the fact that the Internet was deemed "very helpful" to "helpful" by only 42 percent should be a humbling prompt for reflection.)

But I also am heartened by evidence, in the comments accompanying this question and others, that new board chairs want and are willing to commit to a range of learning experiences in the process. Generally speaking, if we build those resources - and tell them about them - will they access them?

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

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