Section 10: Sustainability Model: Understanding the Stewardship Phase
Each of the four communities of transformation (CoTs) initially started without any sense that it would become an ongoing community for faculty-led STEM reform. About five to seven years into their existence, each CoT began to realize the importance of its impact and began a trajectory towards developing a sustaining model. Viewed through the lens of the model of Wenger et al. (2002; reviewed in section 2), the communities were all in the stewardship stage at this time. Each CoT was reacting to the challenges noted in that model, and each also faced the additional concern of building infrastructure to create sustainability—this latter concern is more closely reflected in the professional learning community literature, also described in section 2. The findings of our research describe the important sustainability features that these communities formulated, and how these features enabled the CoTs to continue. Drawing on our findings, we describe here a model for sustainability for communities of transformation, with the following features: 1) leadership development, distribution, and succession planning; 2) a viable financial model (branding, distinctive identity); 3) a professional staff; 4) mechanisms for feedback and advice; 5) research and assessment; and 6) an articulated strategy. Importantly, we found that the elements of this model were represented in each CoT in our study, but often developed to varying degrees. This serves as a reminder that these CoTs are not ideal cases. Throughout the sections below, we highlight some of the challenges in each area that can make difficult the task of striving toward sustainability.
Figure 10.1 captures the sustainability model that emerged from our study in order to help guide future communities. Each area is identified with a particular direction needed to advance sustainability. Feedback helps the community to evolve; assessment provides legitimacy and enables funding; professional staff ensures work is conducted and supports accountability; leadership creates ideas, maintains energy, and ensures that the culture and philosophy of the community is lived out in its practices; a financial model ensures stability for staffing and makes it possible to stay focused on impact; and strategy ensures focus critical to maintaining the community identity/mission. There are often several avenues available to address each area of the sustainability model. For example, in the area of feedback, communities may use advisory boards, self-studies, or surveys; by offering multiple strategies, we hope to give new communities the flexibility to find solutions that fit their strengths and goals. We believe that these findings are applicable to other CoTs inside and outside higher education, specifically other non-organizationally situated communities of practice. We now review each element of the sustainability model.
Leadership Development, Distribution, and Succession Planning
A key component of sustainability is ensuring continuity of leadership through a succession plan. Our findings show how leaders in these CoTs provided the enthusiasm, passion, vision, ideas, and public face of the community. Such community leaders also helped support the philosophy and mission of their CoTs by embodying and practicing the community ideals and values. Even when a CoT had a more distributed leadership structure, participants looked to a small number of individuals to epitomize the philosophy, values, and culture of the community. While we saw how communities tried to distribute these values among a variety of individuals, sustainability seems to be dependent on having some individuals that are “central,” embodying these values and characteristics. In order to support sustainability, a variety of different leadership issues need to be addressed. These include: 1) an ongoing cycle to bring in new generations of individuals that may potentially move into leadership positions; 2) the development of individuals that are part of the community to play leadership roles; 3) occasional retirement of longstanding leaders, including on advisory boards, in subgroups/communities, and in voluntary roles, in order to allow fresh ideas to emerge in all groups; 4) distribution of leadership among members; and 5) succession planning.
A Viable Financial Model
As non-organizationally situated communities of practice, these CoTs depended on grants for support of their work. Each CoT experienced periods during which it became difficult to obtain grants, and forcing the community to face the possibility of phasing out of existence. Also, the CoTs regularly found themselves stretching their missions to obtain funding, thus threatening the identity and shared goals of the community. Stable financing is necessary for these communities to avert these crises and continue to have an impact in their areas of reform. This is an issue that most community leaders shied away from for a few reasons: as faculty, they typically lacked expertise in business and financial planning; their communities had an ethic that supported open access, and it was frowned upon to charge for items or services; and, they often did not see the financial aspects as central to community activity. To become sustainable, each CoT considered and ultimately selected from among a variety of financial models, including: 1) becoming a membership organization; 2) selling materials or resources; 3) charging for events; 4) creating a partnership with another organization; and 5) becoming a nonprofit organization, which often included utilizing a variety of the aforementioned strategies.
A Professional Staff
The human resources of each CoT typically consisted of a few faculty members funded through a grant and an expanded set of volunteers. With some CoTs, the initial leadership was completely voluntary and unpaid, not funded from a grant or any other source. Several of the CoTs continued working for years with a shoestring staff—one or two individuals funded through grants or shared personnel with other projects. Many participants noted the challenge of working in this minimal way, and it was captured succinctly by one: “I think that we can do better in terms of our processes, procedures, and policies, and this just goes back to the whole conversation we had earlier about having internal structures within Project Kaleidoscope that kind of determine how we move forward in a systematized way. It’s hard to expand when there’s no structure underneath. It’s hard to just rely on a grassroots approach and expand at the same time.”
Yet, through success obtaining multiple grants, the expansion of the community, or increasingly ambitious goals, these communities evolved to establish a more professional form of human resources. Without the evolution to a more professional staff, communities are unable to complete the work designated in their grants successfully or to meet their larger community goals.12 Moreover, a professionalized staff led to sustainability in each case by ensuring work completion, by establishing that appropriate expertise exists, and by maintaining accountability. In their mature form, the professional staff of these communities ensured that goals were met in order to facilitate further funding and maintained the accountability that a volunteer base often was unable to enforce. This is not to say that volunteer staffing and leadership is not essential for the success of the CoTs; rather, fully depending on volunteers makes these communities vulnerable.
Formal Feedback and Advice Mechanism
Sustaining the CoTs requires systematic feedback about their work. Communities of transformation starting organically often lacked the practice of obtaining feedback at all, or they received limited feedback; however, this changed over time. The most frequently utilized mechanism for feedback was advisory boards, but CoTs also used other forms of feedback from their members, such as surveys, formal evaluations, or self-studies. Feedback helps a community to evolve and to address challenges, thus fostering sustainability. A community leader described the importance of “being self-critical and questioning our ways of operating” as one of the most significant parts of sustainability. Another community leader noted how feedback that challenged assumptions was important to success and sustainability: “And that’s really the way PKAL functioned, it was to keep reflecting on testing, challenging its conception of what worked in undergraduate STEM education and then to use that vision to shape a response to whatever was pressing.” Feedback can come in many forms, including: 1) advisory boards and/or steering committees; 2) surveys and other assessments that get feedback from community members; 3) two-way communication mechanisms, like social media; and 4) general reflection, self-questioning, and using a critical eye to reflect on how the community is operating and where it is going. The most successful systems for gathering feedback were those that were embedded centrally within the guiding philosophy, such as the POGIL Project’s strengths–improvements–insights model, which ensured that each event and resource would garner enough feedback to allow for ongoing improvements.
Another key component of sustainability is conducting assessment or research to demonstrate the value and impact of the community over time. Demonstrating the impact of the community is significant for continued grant funding, but it also functions to demonstrate value as the community transitions to a membership organization or attempts to partner or merge with another organization. Any approach for creating a viable financial model also depends on demonstrated evidence that the community has added value in connection with its mission, goals, and/or participants. One individual shared the importance of assessment to the community’s long-term sustainability: “I don’t think we had any idea early on that the assessment would help with funding or creating opportunities to present and expand our membership, but it has done that, and I see how it’s one of the key factors in our sustainability. I mean it makes sense that you can demonstrate that the ideas actually work.” A more formal feedback mechanism, as described above, typically buttressed efforts to conduct assessment and research. These two facets of sustainability are inter-related, as CoTs can capitalize on processes for receiving feedback to develop additional and more in-depth assessment.
A Community-Derived Strategy that is Articulated, yet Evolving
Over time, each community recognized that it had a particular niche and expertise that was of interest to others. The CoTs used this understanding to center or focus their work; their work, however, was not always focused on developing this niche. At times, individual leaders decided on new directions that were outside their communities’ known strengths; this led to diffusion of efforts that was symptomatic of a lack of strategic direction within the CoT. As the communities matured and moved toward sustainability, they recognized the importance of a strategic focus. An articulated strategy typically took the form of a strategic plan for the community, but it might also be a strategy document that is less formal. While planning typically was focused on developing the specialty or focus area of the CoT, leaders also had to create a plan for the community itself, addressing questions, such as: How do we continue to bring in new members? How do we continue to engage members with different levels of expertise? How do we build leadership? This is how the notion of strategy connects to leadership and staffing. A community leader noted that, “you have to plan for community as well: How do we keep the enthusiasm? How do we bring in new people? And how do we have enough critical mass? This needs to be part of the strategy as well.” Creating a strategy provided an opportunity for CoTs to examine external factors that might be important for the future—for example, changes in funders’ grant directions or new technologies. While the communities were always scanning their environments, a narrow group of leaders might do so selectively, based only on their particular interests. A wider strategic planning process allowed for a much broader community involvement, introducing a more representative set of external concerns to be brought into strategy development.
Articulating a strategy also helps the communities to hone their direction. Many spent time drifting along, doing the work required by the most recently funded grant rather than identifying work that was best suited for the specific community and its niche. For example, PKAL identified that its perceived strength was in leadership development, and it began to focus activities more in this area to draw on its well-known expertise. The POGIL Project identified that it needed to expand from a narrow pedagogical strategy (i.e., process-oriented guided inquiry learning) to a broader one (i.e., active learning) that better encapsulated the work of the community and would position it to reach many more faculty members. BioQUEST had long focused on simulations and complex technological interventions, but its leaders realized that they could move to simpler technologies, such as Excel spreadsheets, and still engage their philosophical approach in a way that was strategic.
As communities of transformation reach the stewardship phase in their evolution, issues and decisions of sustainability must be addressed. In this section, we described a model for sustainability encapsulating six key factors—leadership, funding, assessment, professional staff, feedback, and strategy—to inform future communities as they seek to continue their work for extended periods of time. Our findings related to sustainability, as well as those highlighted throughout this report, suggest areas for future consideration for these communities and others like them. We now turn to such considerations in section 11, where we explore ideas that could contribute to the success and longevity of these and other such communities in the future.
12. As they grow larger, communities of practice can often take on structures that resemble organizations (Wenger et al., 2002), but they are still distinctively CoPs because of the work they do.