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.

As I was reading Nigel Paine’s excellent 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 but I can offer a few thoughts.

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. 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: a version of this post appeared on the Laramie Board Learning Project as part of a “Nonprofit Board Learning Environments” series. I’m interested in expanding the conversation about how we conceptualize — and deliver — board professional development, particularly in service to what matters: governance effectiveness and performance.

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