About this time last year, our board was reflecting on living into our vision of a world with love, dignity, and justice and the elements of a thriving justice ecosystem. At the same time, MAG staff were letting a million flowers bloom - through new partnerships and networks, work in communities of practice, and commitments to strengthening our own organization. This was true, too, of our clients and partners who had found that deeper and wider networks were key to realizing our shared vision for equity and liberation.
As MAG got clearer about why and how we might work in more networked ways – in deep alignment and practice with others – our partners, board members, and staff were unearthing new questions about implications of this shift for nonprofit governance. By last fall, we landed on two big “How Might We” questions to explore:
How might we evolve governance structures to meet the needs of organizations who are increasingly working in networked ways?
How might we realize deep equity and liberation in governance? How might we align governance practices and culture with our values?
We turned to experimentation to help us break down these big questions into smaller and more manageable pieces, using a process adapted from our work in E3, a community of practice focused on learning through experimentation. Over the last few years, and in part due to our work with E3, we have been working to integrate learning through an experimentation frame both internally and also with clients.
MAG’s Approach to Experimentation
The first manageable question we identified was….
How might we enlist others in helping us answer this question?
Last summer, we kicked off this work with our first small experiment: an invitation to join us as a learning partner or a new board member. When we initially planned this out, we expected to hear from twenty or so people. We hoped that our approach would help us “tap into the mycellium” – the intricate network of close in and far off branches of people two or three degrees separated from MAG.
Following this initial outreach, our community came through in a way we never expected. Over seventy people expressed interest in partnering with us to explore our networked governance questions. Many who responded were already partners and people we knew well, but we also heard from people beyond MAG’s immediate community including academics who are studying new governance models, international aid workers, members of cooperatives and land collectives, faith-based groups, and more.
We had a carefully thought-out plan for next steps to engage each person with many phone calls and follow-ups to learn more, none of which made much sense anymore given the size and scope of our new partnership community and the small team of board and staff members leading this effort.
So we identified and jumped into our next question….
How might we begin engaging the large and diverse group of potential partners interested in learning with us?
A mixed committee of board and staff began planning around how we might bring the vast group of partners with us. We designed an initial webinar to introduce new partners to our experimental framework and our questions at a next level of depth. The committee also created a set of principles to help guide our learning together and ensure that our approach to experimentation is reflective of our stances concerning power and equity. Our learning principles are:
We are “getting to give” – the process is non-extractive and gives back to people participating
We are committed to bringing in voices that are not “in the room”
Learning is precious/sacred and to be honored
Sharing of learning has experiential components
Acknowledge lineage and teachers
Learning is lifted from lived experience
Shepherd your own needs, learning, and experience
Request literacy moments – get curious about acronyms and idioms, etc.
Not everything is for everyone, but it might be for your neighbor!
What we’ve learned so far
Now that we are almost a year into this big, messy, and exciting experiment, we have a few learnings and observations to share:
Settling on our “How Might We” questions took time and evolved with the process. It look several discussions to get to clarity about our essential questions – the most important part of the process to prevent wasting time and energy answering the wrong questions. Hearing how partners were interpreting our experimental questions, and connecting them to their own questions, gave MAG board and staff more insight into what we are experimenting to solve.
Balancing an urgent momentum and a realistic pace is challenging. It was a challenge planning ahead given how much the contours of the experiment were changing including our guiding questions, the number of partners interested in joining, and our growing understanding of the capacity we needed across staff and board to prep for and create a container for our experiments. We often struggled with a desire to be really thoughtful and intentional in our communications with partners and a feeling that we needed to be responsive to people’s excitement and eagerness to be brought into this work.
We are still figuring out the best way to engage a diverse group of partners and bridge a tension between depth of engagement and scale. When seventy people responded to our call for partners, we had to shift the first steps in our process. Initially we envisioned one-on-one calls with each person. When we realized we didn’t have the capacity to engage all seventy people, we shifted to a 90-minute webinar with the full group. We used Zoom breakout groups to support small group conversations and pair shares. As we go, we are still imagining and creating a container for the experiments that can keep the breadth of these partnerships without sacrificing depth and strengthen our relationships across the group.
This process helped us bring together the right group of board members to move MAG forward. Our first board meeting with four new members took place at the end of February. They brought new ideas and energy to the conversation and helped us brainstorm an initial list of experiments based on our “how might we” questions that we are excited to move forward. More on this soon!