Strategic Learning: Beyond Board Roles and Responsibilities

Jo-Louise Huq and Kathryn York. April 2019.

Boards are an integral part of non-profit organizations whether they are structured to focus on governance, policy, or administration.

Effective Boards have clear roles and responsibilities that help focus members who bring different perspectives, experiences, and interests to the organizations they serve.[i] There are numerous resources available—including our own—to help Boards with roles and responsibilities. IMAGINE Canada, for example, provides a detailed listing of guides and tools related to Building Your Board, Roles and Requirements, and Board Policies and Planning.[ii]

Today, however non-profit Boards need more than defined roles and responsibilities to support organizations that are :

In this kind of environment, strategic learning is critical.

Strategic learning is the use of data and insights from different sources of information to inform decision-making.

It involves “sense-making, reality checking, assumption testing, and answering questions” and is about increasing a Board’s and an organization’s ability to understand progress, influence, and impact. [iii], [iv]  

Our experience suggests that strategic learning is going to become more important as non-profit boards and organizations collaborate to encourage local and system change and as organizations introduce and operationalize internal changes to deal with external pressures.

Drawing together ideas of strategic learning and system and organizational change we suggest that Boards will need to:

  • Start with a strong foundation of clearly defined role and responsibilities,
  • Develop a shared understanding of systems change including relationships and connections, resource flows, policy, mental models, power, and practice[v],
  • Support organizational investments in changing external conditions that are holding problems in place,
  • Support organizational investments and efforts related to internal change, and
  • Understand how different type of information can be used to inform decision-making.

Engaging with and developing these elements should help Boards fulfill their roles and responsibilities and become stronger at strategic learning. First steps would be for Boards to undertake a purposeful examination of their readiness for strategic learning and identify where early strategic learning gains might be achieved. We look forward to exploring some of these ideas in future blogs.


[i] National Council of Nonprofits. (2019). Board Roles and Responsibilities. Available here: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/board-roles-and-responsibilities

[ii] IMAGINE Canada. (2019). Sector Source: Board Governance. Available here: http://sectorsource.ca/managing-organization/board-governance

[iii] Preskill et al. (2019). Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning: A Toolkit. FSG and GEO. Available here: https://www.fsg.org/publications/engaging-boards-and-trustees-strategic-learning

[iv] Coffman, J., & Beer, T. (2011). Evaluation to support strategic learning: principles and practices. Center for Evaluation Innovation.

[v] Kania, J., Kramer, M., & Senge, P. (2018). The Water of Systems Change. FSG. Available here:
https://www.fsg.org/publications/water_of_systems_change

Published by CCIG | Collaborating, Changing, Innovating, EnGaging

I am a 'pracademic,' a practitioner of collaborative change and innovation who also conducts and publishes research on collaboration, change, and innovation. This is my personal blog, and I use it to communicate about my and other's research, publications, and ideas related to change, innovation, and collaboration.

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