Nonprofit Boards as Communities of Practice: Identity, social learning, and the distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how”

As a doctoral student, I am often asked about my future career plans.  With excitement, I share that I would like to support nonprofit organizations in achieving effective board governance.  In response, some people smile and nod, passively dismissing the idea that “effective board governance” is attainable.  Others sigh deeply and suggest that I could hone my skills and begin my work by “fixing” their organization’s board of directors.  This latter group of individuals seemed to be suggesting that a presumably highly skilled, professional group of volunteers is neither engaged nor equipped in ways that meet the needs of the nonprofit they are serving.  It is in that moment that I want to help my colleagues and friends reframe governance, shedding light on the possibilities and limitations that are created as a result of the lens through which we choose to view the nonprofit sector.

I believe effective organizational governance is an art and a science.  It is a beautiful, contextually and situationally based experience. Generative governance represents one helpful way of considering this complexity.  As defined by Chait, Ryan, and Taylor (2005), generative governance, is a way of thinking that produces a “sense of what knowledge, information, and data mean” (p. 84).  In addition to the fiduciary and strategic work of a board, this form of interaction aids members in determining what to address, what decisions need to be made and why, and how to make sense of the process of deciding (Chait et al., 2005). Adopting this way of proceeding, directors and trustees ask and debate such questions as the following:

  • How does this (action or step or direction) relate to our mission?
  • What does this communicate about our values?
  • Is there a gap between what the organization claims it is and what it actually is?

A number of scholars and practitioners have suggested various so-called best practices aimed at encouraging boards to accept the challenging work of generative thinking. In my view, however, the socially dynamic nature of governance coupled with the cultural complexities that often characterize nonprofit boards, suggests instead the utility of social learning as a way to encourage such an orientation.Lave and Wenger (1991) have proposed that social learning takes place in communities of practice, defined as, “system[s] of relationships between people, activities, and the world; developing with time, and in relation to other tangential and overlapping communities of practice” (p. 98).

Exploring the components of a community of practice, Wenger (1998) has argued that meaning, practice, community and identity “characterize social participation as a process of learning” (p. 4). He defined each of these components as follows:

  • Meaning:  a way of talking about our (changing) ability – individually and collectively – to experience our life and the world as meaningful.
  • Practice:  a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action.
  • Community:  a way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation in recognizable as competence.
  • Identity:  a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities (p. 5).

When successful, communities of practice become common ventures with shared expectations and accountability.  They are characterized by mutual engagement that leads to collective action concerning issues or problems.  Members communicate stories, and adopt tools, language, and artifacts that lead to a sense of belonging within the community (Wenger, 1998).  The capacity of communities of practice to promote social learning raises the question of whether a similar approach might be applied to nonprofit organization governance.

Communities of practice, grounded in social learning theory, provide an interesting means by which to encourage generative thinking among board members.  Learning to be an effective nonprofit board member must include the development of four ways of knowing:

  • Learning to be a board member (identity development),
  • Learning how to govern (practice),
  • Learning about the organization (community and culture), and
  • Learning why the organization’s mission is a cause for service (meaning and impact).

While a well-crafted board orientation session can promote awareness of the policies and procedures that shape an organization’s business (“knowing that”), they too often fail to engage fully the ambiguity, cultural context, social roles and dimensions that comprise the “how” of board governance.  This is true for novice and experienced directors alike, whose identities and social role(s) as board members are established within the community of practice in which they find themselves members. Social learning leads to the infusion of “know how” into the fabric of peer interactions among board members and creates a shared experience in which “knowing that” is no longer sufficient to exercise effective governance.  While not all boards function as communities of practice, this framework offers an alternative to the widely accepted view of governance as a linear or rigid process of information sharing and cultural cue taking.

In a detailed case analysis of one nonprofit board, Beck (2014) has contended that several major characteristics contribute to a “culture where learning and generative governance can occur within the routine work of a nonprofit board” (p. 109).  Most notably, Beck suggests that policies and practices that link board member personal motivations and contributions to mission ensures that each member is clear about the responsibilities of their governance role,  promotes expertise sharing among members, and encourages broad recognition among members of the significance of questions posed in formal meetings. Taken together these steps create, “opportunities for learning and identity development through practice” (p. 119).  Beck found that member recruitment practices and clear descriptions of individual directors’ roles were in turn critical in shaping overall board identity development, enhanced member’s commitment to the organization’s mission, and aided in shaping the questions they posed for consideration in meetings.  Role clarity also provided members a frame by which to evaluate their impact and to share the organization’s story.  Individual director articulation of the nonprofit’s narrative,  “reinforced and elaborated (their understanding of the organization’s) mission, and identified the board’s role in its stewardship” (Beck, 2014, p. 120).  Beck found that when such practices are adopted, newcomers were able to join an organization’s board and grasp quickly the board’s operative culture as a governing body.

Wenger and Snyder (2000) have argued that, “people in communities of practice share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems” (p. 140).  Generative governance, highlighted by the use of skilled and challenging questions that encourage discussion, debate, and at times dissent, enables nonprofits, as problem framing entities, to meet the changing needs of their typically diverse stakeholders.  It is imperative for today’s boards to develop a culture that embraces social learning as a means of attaining generative governance and effective mission attainment.  In doing so, belonging, identity development, and shared commitment to a common purpose become cornerstones of a board’s meaning-making efforts, and thereby fuel for sustaining social change.


Beck, D. B. (2014). Learning to be, learning about:  A socio-cultural learning approach to board practice. In C. Cornforth & W. A. Brown (Eds.), Nonprofit governance:  Innovative perspectives and approaches (pp. 103-122). New York, NY: Routledge.

Chait, R. P., Ryan, W. P., & Taylor, B. E. (2005). Governance as leadership:  Reframing the work of nonprofit boards. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lave, J., & Wegner, E. (1991). Situated learning:  Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. C., & Snyder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard business review, 78(1), 139-146.

sarah-hanksSarah Hanks is a second year Ph.D. student in Agricultural & Extension Education and is the Graduate Assistant for the Residential Leadership Community. Her academic and research interests include leadership studies, problem solving, and nonprofit management.

Prior to returning to graduate school, Sarah enjoyed eight years as a leader within the YMCA movement, including four years as an executive director. In addition to her academic pursuits, Sarah serves as a member of the Community Voices team, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in the New River Valley, and an active member of Northstar Church, as well as several professional organizations.






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