I have officially been working as a consultant for one year. It was not my original plan to start a new consulting practice at the start of a global pandemic. Like the strategic plans of most nonprofits I know, my crisply crafted business plan of February 2020 became scrap paper by, well, March 2020. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate to be busy with unanticipated projects, many stirred up by the sudden need to get learning online.
Anniversaries offer opportunities for reflection. Here are three lessons that I have reflected on and that motivate me as I enter another year of service.
1. There is a growing movement to bring adult learning deeper into the nonprofit sector.
The role that research-based adult learning practice plays in the nonprofit sector has not been clear. Corporations spend many millions on learning and development with data to track performance outcomes. The nonprofit sector has been spending a whole lot of money too, but with no data or even overriding commitment to track how things are different because of a sub-industry of workshops, webinars, and conferences.
That is changing. More and more association leaders and consultants are committing to the power of research-based program design and delivery. The concept of a learning strategy is catching on as people grow impatient for progress and see the power in having a plan. An increasing number of associations are designing conferences around that core question: what do we want to move the needle on? Collectively, we are building a movement at the intersection of learning and nonprofit leadership.
2. There is still much to be done to bring a research-based adult learning practice deeper into sector strategy.
With any movement, we can see the need for our work all around us. You probably receive just as many emails as I do inviting you to join webinars structured around monotone bullet-point slides or sessions that talk about engagement without actually engaging anyone at all. Learning myths—like learning styles and goldfish-length attention spans— find their way into nonprofit workshops, proving to be more of a distraction than real learning. (Learning styles have been debunked, and as has the notion that people can’t focus longer than a fish wink. Anyone who has binge-watched a Netflix show knows that.)
All of which makes this work so exciting! Yes, a few people seem willing to go to the mat to defend their identity as being a visual learner. (They are not.) But there is nothing sweeter than watching someone shrug off their bullet-point addiction and explore what a participant-centered learning experience might look and feel like. (Curious? Join us for The Trainer Academy in June.) Two cohorts of association and consultant trainers went through our curriculum development course. Several hundred people joined us for sessions on how to teach online. We are making progress.
3. Nonprofit leaders are amazing, demonstrating a humbling amount of empathy, competency, and resiliency. They are even more amazing together.
We already knew nonprofit people were special before COVID. Who else would step into hard problems, unsolved by the private or public sector, (many as volunteers!) to put their knowledge, resources, and resourcefulness to work on causes that matter? What has struck me as nonprofits have faced unprecedented challenges is how much nonprofits want to collaborate and how many structural barriers get in their way. During our Reemergence learning series in Central Washington, nonprofit leaders told us that they were collaborating on small scales but needed ways to share information across the region towards a more efficient use of resources. In preparing for a conference workshop on collaboration at the end of April, nonprofit leaders celebrated the innovative partnerships they created to address human services related to COVID. But boards serve organizations, not the larger problems being addressed. Funders fund organizations, not systems finding solutions.
This leads me to two thoughts. First, our job as learning leaders is to go beyond teaching people how to operate in the nonprofit sector as it is. We must also create spaces in which nonprofit people can challenge “best practice,” a term that too often reinforces a practice based within a power structure that needs to change. Second, social change happens within communities. A community holds the right to decide what issues they most want to build change around. Our job as learning leaders is to listen… and then design learning programs that make a difference to the people living in the communities we work within. We serve a larger mission—lifting up equity, humanity, and environmental vitality—at the same time that we serve our clients and colleagues.
You don’t start a business without a team, a community, and awesome clients. I am grateful for everyone who has journeyed with me this past year. Here’s to more adventuresome travels in the years to come!