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Character Sketch: Nonprofit Maven

September 15, 2011

How can regular folks create outrageously creative community-building organizations? According to MizInfo’s big crush, Nonprofit Maven, we do it by learning.


Full disclosure: I have a big, sloppy, professional/platonic crush on Nonprofit Maven, who blogs at the Board Learning Project and tweets @NPMaven.

For more than 15 years, Debra Baker Beck has been rocking my world. She was MizInformation’s first editor, publishing my nascent attempts at journalism in University of Wyoming AlumNews. When I got involved in international women’s human rights activism, she encouraged me to channel some of that passion into my own community, leading to my first nonprofit board experience at the Albany County SAFE Project in rural Wyoming. That sparked my life of joyful nonprofit geekery.

Back at the dawn of the new century, I had a blast developing curriculum with Debbie for Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute (SRNI). A true mentor, she showed me what collaborative community-building is all about: Pull together folks who share a strong vision, and create the space where they can learn with each other and contribute their very best.

Since then she’s researched how nonprofit boards work when they’re working well, sharing lessons with academics and practitioners via her Laramie Board Learning Project. In a nutshell, she shows how boards (and their organizations) are at their best when they ask big-picture questions and learn together. Each time I read her blog, I find a golden idea, tool or question that’s just the thing I need to help a group move forward.

Nowadays, with a Doctor of Education degree under her belt, Debbie is Nonprofit Maven, again leading by example. Based in Laramie, Wyoming but connected internationally through social and academic networks, she’s not out there just pushing her own ideas and content. She’s really curious to learn with and from her Twitter peeps and blog followers. Debbie bridges the rich knowledge in both academia and the real world of community-building, volunteering and serving on local and national boards.

Debbie presents and publishes with ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Associations and Voluntary Action). And, rumor has it, she’s got a book chapter in her future. Not too shabby for someone who also has a full-time job, teaches public administration, and consults with nonprofits. To top it off, Debbie has a knack for picking out the smartest and cutest puppies (and husband).

Maven, indeed. Here I ask a couple of questions about what makes Debbie’s heart tick for the nonprofit sector.

MizInfo: What are you passionate about, and where do you think that came from?
@NPMaven: My passion for all things nonprofit goes back to Brownie Girl Scouts, where I had my first volunteer experiences. Volunteerism was a constant theme throughout my childhood and adolescence, and it set a tone for a lifetime. As an adult, a significant percentage of my volunteerism has been focused on board service. My first board assignment, in 1983, changed my life and introduced my greatest passion: nonprofit governance. I’m also passionate about adult education and creating high-quality learning and professional development experiences. I’ve taught online nonprofit courses for the University of Wyoming Master of Public Administration Program since 2001. I also co-founded the Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, an annual professional development event for nonprofit staff and board members.

MizInfo: What does “community” mean to you?
@NPMaven: Community brings together people who share common interests, concerns and aspirations. At its finest, community channels their energies to create something better than the sum of individual member contributions. Community at its finest creates and fulfills a compelling vision of a better future for its members.

MizInfo: What do you want to learn?
@NPMaven: I want to understand more deeply and fully the factors that ultimately create satisfying, leaderful governance experiences for nonprofit board members — what fulfills and sustains and inspires them to reach beyond the “10 basic responsibilities” to truly lead their organization and their community?

MizInfo: How do you measure success?
Are lives impacted? Can I sleep well at night, knowing that I’ve tried my hardest to make a difference?

MizInfo: Thanks, Debbie! We look forward to continuing to learn with you, and finding ways to apply all this juicy stuff to our own community-building work!

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