Community of Practice

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Could structuring peer-to-peer learning as a community of practice be useful for advancing learning in nonprofits? If so, why?

What is a community of practice?

Community of practice” (sometimes referred to as “CoP”) is a term created in 1993 by cognitive anthropologists Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave. In their treatise they defined a community of practice as:

“A group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

A community of practice expands and formalizes conversations and relationships beyond LinkedIn or the proverbial “water cooler.” The “community” is a self-selected network of individuals who share a passion for learning more deeply about some aspect of their work. They join with others to advance their understanding and “build bridges” so that others understand their perspectives. In a community of practice, participants come together to intentionally learn from and share practices and ideas with each other. The peer-to-peer aspect of the learning process may be useful to address community conflicts or misunderstandings.

It seems that nothing promotes efficient, deep, and direct learning better than a personal mentor. Why not tap into a network full of them? A “community of practice” brings together individuals with a shared interest through a structure that encourages deep listening and results in a very direct exchange of knowledge.

A community of practice is different from a community of interest. Fans of a certain movie genre (comedy, romantic, etc.) are an example of a “community of interest” – They are a group of people who share an interest, but do not necessarily have an interest in sharing their knowledge or applying it in concert with others. In contrast, participants in a community of practice are committed to deepening their knowledge about some aspect of their chosen profession or job responsibilities, and are very willing to both learn from others and contribute to discussions so that others learn from them.

How nonprofits can benefit from communities of practice

Nonprofits can create a community of practice to share ideas so they don’t have to “re-invent the wheel” and to solve problems that are too challenging to solve alone. Communities of practice are useful for “systems change” and well-suited to bring together nonprofits with different perspectives and missions that can benefit from deeper collaboration. The peer-to-peer interaction of communities of practice builds trusted connections that lends itself to many knowledge sharing opportunities.

  • As an example, within the National Council of Nonprofits, the state association network serves as a community of practice that facilitates knowledge sharing between state associations so they can better serve the nonprofits in their networks.

What does a community of practice look like?

Communities of practice have been applied to a world-wide community aimed at reducing food losses and achieving food security; to diverse affinity groups of a membership association; to virtual communities; and to citizen action groups striving to solve transportation issues in their community.

Characteristics and potential activities of communities of practice include: (Source: Wenger)

  • Problem solving
  • Making recommendations
  • Sharing experiences
  • Hosting community forums
  • Developing shared measurement tools
  • Building an argument for a policy campaign
  • Growing confidence and encouraging representatives to speak out
  • Discussing developments in communities and solutions to challenges
  • Documenting data needed to move communities forward
  • Coordinating visits to participants' sites to learn more about different approaches and perspectives
  • Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps

Case Study: Forefront in Illinois

In 2012, Donors Forum, (now called Forefront) the statewide association in Illinois for grantmakers, nonprofits, and philanthropc advisors, tackled the Overhead Myth by bringing together a community of practice comprised of approximately 30 grantmakers and nonprofit leaders. The group met regularly over the course of a year to understand from each other’s perspectives what the barriers are to nonprofits receiving full cost funding to cover their “real costs.” One of the primary outcomes of the community of practice was a campaign, “Real Talk about Real Costs” with a goal of changing the attitudes and understanding about overhead costs. Donors Forum initially called this effort a “community conversation” and created a video to spread awareness. A community of practice can serve more than simply those convening in the peer group by making resources available to the community such as toolkits and discussion guides.

Benefits

There are many benefits to establishing a community of practice:

  • CoPs create a direct link between learning and performance because members of the community of practice are actively participating in the community and have the capability to put what they are learning directly into practice.
  • Because of the diversity of the participants, CoPs often come up with solutions to problems in their communities more readily than individuals working alone who are tasked with solving the same problem.
  • Participants can collect data or compile knowledge together, which can augment a centralized information base.
  • Participants fill knowledge gaps in each other’s practices.
  • Participation in a community of practice often forms the foundation for a longer-lived network of individuals who share common interests/concerns and will continue coming together to tackle new problems long after the community of practice’s original work is over.

Where to start?

  • Find and join your State Association today! Many State Associations regularly convene communities of practice and peer-learning cohorts.
  • Connect with other nonprofit leaders in your area, and propose that together you convene a community of practice focused on a common issue.

Resources

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