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Guest Blog Post: Weaving a Leadership Network for Nonprofit Boards
By Amy Erickson, Capacity4Good Consulting, LLC
In a conference room at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington in March 2010, approximately 100 community and nonprofit leaders and staff heard Heather McLeod Grant discuss her book Forces for Good. Heather talked about adopting a network mindset for shaping social change. As I listened and thought about the nature of this 35,000 member community, I saw an opportunity for a network weaver role. But for what purpose? The next thing I heard was my answer. Over and over I heard people asking how can we find future leaders for our boards?
In partnership with Lawson Knight, the executive director of the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, we created a network to identify, engage and prepare emerging leaders for nonprofit board service. We launched the Walla Walla Leaders Network (WWLN) thanks to funding through Philanthropy Northwest’s Community Foundation Initiative to build the capacity of nonprofits. The initiative was based on a 2009 study of the capacity needs of nonprofit organizations in Washington State, which identified eight essential elements of a healthy nonprofit ecosystem. Dubbed The Nonprofit Ecosystem Report, the findings indicated that in Walla Walla County, nonprofit boards often are populated by many of the same people, and sometimes by successive generations of family members. Community members often describe the local boards as dysfunctional.
WWLN’s concept is built on three of the eight essential elements of a healthy nonprofit ecosystem:
1. To establish ongoing ways to surface, educate and sustain leadership at both board and executive levels;
2. To create a community infrastructure that supports volunteerism, including skilled volunteerism for board leadership and capacity building.
3. Increasing organizational capacity to use technology in pursuit of mission (e.g. access to data that can inform needs and decisions).
Among the Ecosystem report's recommendations to the Walla Walla funding community, the WWLN addresses two: strengthening board governance capacity and building peer networks for learning.
The Network also was designed based on best practices for effective networks (for unbounded networks) offered by the Monitor Institute: value, participation, form, leadership, governance, connection, capacity, learning and adaptation.
The WWLN offers education about nonprofit board-service and professional development for individual, strengths-based leadership growth. The key objective are to engage Network members in peer learning via coaching circles, mentoring, and action learning; and, connect them with boards for service. The individual leadership outcomes are increased self awareness and self-management; a personal leadership vision; increased ability to motivate and lead others and increased adaptability.
A purpose and pathways
As the Network manager, I was at first concerned whether people would “get” the purpose and join. They did indeed, but not everyone joined for the purpose we set forth. We wanted members, who came from many backgrounds, to connect with the Network and then with boards of nonprofits. In the first year, 222 members signed up; 47 members are actively and regularly participating in discussions and webinars for leadership growth. We have 12 mentors; four are mentees; seven members are serving on committees of boards; eight are in peer coaching circles, two pro-bono peer group coaching facilitators (whom I trained with) and eight members who are serving on the newly formed Network’s leadership team.
What about the boards? Yes, nonprofit leaders and board members are participating, but not as actively or in as great of numbers as we anticipated! For example, from member profiles and in our many surveys we learned that only three people joined to find a board member or to become a board member.
By the third month, I was perplexed. So to further clarify the Network’s purpose and value (the give and get for members) we developed a road map with paths and messages such as: here’s how you can participate and here is what you can receive as a member.
In his article on Tipping Points and Social Networks, Brad Hunter helps drive home Malcolm Gladwell’s laws about tipping points: the law of the few (in social networks, messages are passed word of mouth and are the social epidemic) the stickiness factor and the law of context. He said: when it comes to content and packaging of a message, if the message isn’t worth spreading then it’s doomed to failure.
In our Network’s case, people chose to join for different reasons. What message did they hear? What did they spread? Our surveys showed that 55% of the members joined to be more connected in the community and to give back through volunteering.
Does this mean our message about leadership growth for board service wasn’t worth spreading? With only 41% of the members indicating they joined to develop their leadership skills or network with other leaders for learning, I saw that we needed to do more analyzing and tweaking on this – reshaping and testing the message for stickiness! I considered Gladwell’s law of context, too. Was the community ready for the message? I learned through many discussions with members that some were not aware such a thing as a nonprofit board existed.
Early in the Network creation I worked to craft and tweak the messages with people whom Gladwell calls the connectors, mavens, and salespersons. I also followed what June Holley offers as a checklist for a network weaver, (not knowing it existed at the time). My first instinct was to find the positive.
For help at this stage, I pulled out my favorite book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I looked for the bright spots, the early signs of something working in a situation. In our Network, these were the people who were circling back to me reporting that they “got the message” and were telling others. Bright spots also were people who demonstrated commitment to the value proposition offered in the Network and who were active participants; they showed up at events, webinars, and discussions. They responded to surveys, email outreach and met with me in person many times to discuss the Network’s needs.
I believe there are more success factors involved beyond finding the bright spots, like the power of personal connections, and being present with each other. In Walla Walla, much of the networking is still done face-to-face.
We are not there yet in terms of measuring individual leadership outcomes. May 2012 marks the beginning of our six-month peer coaching circle/leadership development sessions.
Regarding the Network’s effectiveness as a whole? We are assessing our progress against the best practices for healthy Networks. On first glance, we can give the Network high marks in seven of the eight measures. The one area that needs the most attention: connection; especially use of social media and shared spaces.
The most exciting outcome of this Network for me has been the emergence of what I consider to be Network guardians! The “few” who have been regularly active. I have asked them to form the Network’s leadership team and they are now planning and preparing for phase two (and beyond) of the Network.
Amy Erickson is the principal consultant for Capacity4Good Consulting, LLC. Amy brings 19-years of experience in the nonprofit sector to equip people and organizations for the greater good. Her objective is to help people at every stage in the life-cycle of the organization, community group, or coalition. Once strategies have been established, she takes people to next step – helping them adapt in order to implement the plan. Amy recognizes that adapting to new ideas and methods can be challenging—whether it’s at the executive, program, board, or administrative level. Amy works at the intersection of change, where people and plans merge and sometimes get stuck, to build human and organizational capacity. Tools she uses to develop leaders include peer coaching, action learning and emotional intelligence assessments. Amy brings a panoramic view to her work, gleaned from roles in nonprofit organizations as a marketing communications and public relations specialist, grant writer, and from her work with a private grant making foundation. She has a bachelor of arts in consumer economics from Wayne State University, a certificate in nonfiction writing from the University of Washington, and is a 2009 graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Nonprofit Leadership program. She is passionate about mentoring and guiding emerging leaders. Her MNPL work focused on preparing the next generation of nonprofit leaders for the nonprofit sector. Most recently, in partnership with the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, she has created and manages an online network of 200+ members called the Walla Walla Leaders Network. The Network’s purpose is to identify, engage, and prepare emerging leaders for nonprofit board service in the Walla Walla Valley. She also developed a community outcomes strategy, social-marketing plan and website for the Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla to reduce adverse childhood experiences and increase resilience in families and children. Amy currently serves on the board of the Washington Assistance Dog Education Center and is a member of the visiting committee for the Master of Nonprofit Leadership Program at Seattle University.