Sometimes, it takes a wise friend to gently point out the obvious. Last week, that friend was Nancy Iannone, who, in a comment shared on an earlier post, connected my academic writing and my practice-focused work.
Nancy gave me the simple vocabulary (that I actually use in other settings) for describing what I feel is missing in so many efforts to “educate” nonprofit boards. The funny thing is, I’m working on a chapter, for a new book on governance practice, about this very topic. Nancy’s favor to me was helping me step away from the proverbial tree I’ve been pruning so I could see the governance forest where I live, teach and write.
A bit of context for this personal “aha” moment:
Since completing my dissertation, my academic focus has turned more toward sociocultural learning in the nonprofit board setting. Because the organizations they govern are meaning-driven – via their intense focus on mission, vision and values – a cultural-interpretive approach to understanding nonprofit governance practice makes particularly good sense.
The short title of my book chapter, and the Academy of Management presentationfrom which it evolved, sums up the gap perfectly. Board development involves not only learning about, it’s also learning to be. Too much of what we throw at boards focuses exclusively on the former, but it’s in the latter that members find inspiration and deepen commitment.
What Nancy helped me to see was that, in my attempt to expand the list of “10 basic board responsibilities,” I was unconsciously addressing a serious lack of “being” in the roles we assign to our governing bodies. I read the list of 10 and think, “Blech! Why would anyone knowingly sign on for this?” Defining the mission and vision provides some link to the reason most of us serve. But the rest of the list? What doesn’t scare the stuffing out of board members threatens to bore us silly.
In practice, the typical board agenda alternates between the frightening and the sleep-inducing. In training, boards are steered toward the same. Those few, precious opportunities to formally expand our understanding of governance are spent learning about the latest accountability requirements handed down by the IRS (talk about inspiring fear!), the need to write a plan in four hours or less (with little attention to the motivation behind it – just write the darn thing SMART-ly), and the latest techniques to transform reluctant volunteers into all-star fundraisers. Obviously, that work is part of the job (well, some version of what I’ve just described is part of the job). But it’s not the part that sustains board members and inspires them to lead.
What Nancy’s comment pointed out so nicely was that my four little additions to the job description (visionary, ambassador, steward and leader) aren’t a revolutionary reconceptualization of governance. They’re an articulation of the “being” part of board service and learning. She also helped me to see what I’ve been too busy writing to grasp: that the purpose of this blog, while grounded in real issues boards face, is fundamentally about the being-ness of boards.
I don’t intend to turn this post into an academic paper, but a couple of quotes may help readers see how I’m connecting the dots. The first is a quote from Etienne Wenger, who has profoundly influenced my understanding of social learning (from a book that shaped my understanding – and my dissertation – Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity):
“Because learning transforms who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just an accumulation of skills and information, not in the abstract as ends themselves, but in service of an identity. It is in that formation of an identity that learning can become a source of meaningfulness and of personal and social energy.”
Learning to govern is about more than mechanics. It’s even about more than inventorying and monitoring the programs delivered and clients served. Learning to govern also involves learning to lead, and to becoming social change agents in our community.
The second quote comes from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid and extends Wenger’s point perfectly:
“Learning, in all, involves acquiring identities that reflect both how a learner sees the world and how the world sees the learner.”
If board members embrace their roles as visionaries for your organization, if they truly become ambassadors for your mission, they will be transformed. As human beings and as community leaders, there is no turning back. They will be changed in the process.
Another author/researcher that has influenced me, John Dirks, has called learning in meaning-making work “our soul work.” Governance is, in very real ways, soul work.
As I bring this particular “well, du-uh…” moment to a close, I need to recommit to bringing those theoretical insights that shape my thinking so profoundly into my understanding of the practice of governance. I also need to be better about embedding those connections into posts I’m already writing, acknowledging those influences (and recognizing them in the first place), and applying them to real governance life.