The power in the room was palpable. Not just at the recent BoardEffect Users Conference, where hundreds of BoardEffect administrators congregated to learn with – and from – one another, but every time I’ve witnessed professional peers convene to gain and share knowledge. They consistently generate energy from one another, leveraging their experiences to offer guidance, encouragement, instruction, and validation to colleagues in similar roles. They take pride in knowing their struggles might benefit someone else and comfort in knowing they’re not alone.
For decades, business leaders have been tapping peer learning opportunities through organizations established to foster camaraderie initially among chief executives and increasingly among other c-level leaders. In more recent years, the nonprofit sector has followed suit as executive directors and nonprofit chief executives seek out one another for similar support. But what’s available for board members?
Topical Board Education
Not even seven years ago, there wasn’t much. I’d been asked by a funder to research what learning opportunities existed to help nonprofit board leaders succeed in their roles. While specific market segments — healthcare and higher education — offered programs designed to provide education and support to new board leaders, I found a notable gap in learning opportunities for the majority of board members. As a rule, they could attend workshops or courses on specific topics (such as donor cultivation or strategic planning) or bring such programs into the board room, but they couldn’t readily find opportunities to learn about or share the experience of chairing or even serving on a board.
Board Education is Adult Education
Now, as board education gains status as a greater priority throughout the sector, there is increased attention on what individual board members should understand – and heightened awareness about how they learn. Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, a pioneer in modern adult education in the U.S., promoted the reorientation of adult educators from “educating people” to “helping them learn,” as described by Infed.org.
According to a post about Knowles, there are six main characteristics of adult learning:
- Self-directed/autonomous – they must be actively engaged in the learning process to make choices relevant to their learning goals.
- Utilizes knowledge and life experiences – learners are encouraged to connect their past experiences with current knowledge and activities.
- Goal-oriented – motivation to learn increases when the relevance of learning to the adult’s real-life situations is clear, so aligning learning goals with specific outcomes and timelines is important.
- Relevancy-oriented – adults learn by relating tasks to goals, so they will be motivated to engage in activities/projects that connect to learning objectives.
- Highlights practicality – theoretical concepts must be connected to and implemented in real-life situations.
- Encourages collaboration – adult learners are more productive in collaborative relationships with their educators and they offer their best when their contributions are acknowledged.
Changing Learning Landscape
Thus, the growing prominence of experiential learning opportunities for all leaders, including board members, is explained. Compasspoint, for example, is a national leadership and strategy practice based in California that recently launched a new peer learning program for board chairs. The program will convene a cohort of board chairs for a four-month learning process that combines governance content, facilitation, and peer-learning to support board chairs in their critical role.
Similarly, the Rhode Island Foundation and the Wisconsin Primary Health-Care Foundation, for instance, offer peer learning opportunities for nonprofit leaders, including board chairs, board members, and staff.
In a recent Forbes blog post, a marketing executive noted what she took from the experience of moderating an executive roundtable which fostered peer learning among C-suite executives. “Smart leaders continuously seek education,” she explains. She found participants to be transparent, open to learning, and intent on listening. She was surprised that the conversation never died, as executives brought up problems and questions, offering answers and understanding. She notes, “everyone was there to learn, not to judge or critique.”
Peer Learning in the Board Room
While such learning opportunities can be invaluable, board members actually don’t need to leave the board room to benefit from peer learning. No doubt, there are diverse skills, talent, and expertise already around every board table that could be tapped more fully. As illustrated in the Laramie Board Learning Project, which looks at adult learning in a nonprofit governance context, board members can play key roles in peer learning together: 1) expert in skill area (ie. financial management, public relations, HR) or mission, and 2) non-expert, particularly in effective board deliberations.
As experts, author Dr. Debra Beck explains, board members can lend their knowledge of an area or issue to inform discussions, articulate concerns, and alleviate anxiety about the unknown while educating fellow board members about that critical topic. In one case, a board member with experience in development voiced concern about the organization’s continued capacity to meet community needs given financial realities. She explained her perspective and encouraged board members to think through how they would anticipate and adapt to changing conditions. The board later asked that board member to lead an educational discussion about fundraising strategies they could employ. She shared her expertise and facilitated a discussion that resulted in a new board plan to expand its role in maintaining a strong donor base for the organization.
From an adult learning perspective, the board member “willingly shared expertise” with her peers about a typically uncomfortable topic in an “accessible and empowering way.” And she applied her knowledge about both the subject and the organization to anticipate a challenge strategically, before it was a problem.
The non-expert role, according to Dr. Beck, is one that prompts board members to ask questions, “challenge ‘common sense’ assumptions,” and offer different perspectives, rather than simply rely upon – and abdicate to – the “experts”. Engaged board members who pose “naïve” questions can promote enhanced learning not only for themselves, but among all board members.
When we recognize board members as adult learners, we can adapt our models for board education to suit their ongoing educational needs and foster simultaneous learning and teaching among them.