Nonprofit Professional Development: Top Resources and Ideas
“Our greatest asset is our people!”
That’s just a vacuous, corporate platitude, proffered by Sunday morning political talk-show sponsors who want to show us they “care,” right?
Not so fast. Assets cost money. Even if your business is “lean,” “flat,” automated, and super-high-tech, the cost of the people you need to make it all happen could well be one of, if not the top expense.
Those Sunday morning talk show sponsors know that if they can’t keep great talent, all the other assets won’t produce enough money for a quick commercial on the late-late-late night movie, let alone a full minute on a high-profile Washington-based, investor-watching public affairs program.
They also know that it’s much more cost-effective to retain an employee than it is to hire someone new. And if they can keep the right people for a longer time, the more efficient they become and the more money they make.
But what does that mean to you, a nonprofit leader? Whether you’re an all-volunteer, grass-roots charity, or a major national institution, it means the same thing as it does to that Fortune-whatever corporate CEO—your greatest asset is your people.
So how do you get the most out of those assets – the ones that literally breathe life into your nonprofit mission? The answer is professional development.
That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive guide to nonprofit professional development to help organizations like yours get the training they need to succeed. Let’s take a closer look at the resources, ideas, and best practices involved in effective nonprofit training:
- Nonprofit Professional Development and Training Resources
- Nonprofit Professional Development Ideas
- Nonprofit Professional Development FAQ
Read along from the top to find out everything you need to know to get started with nonprofit professional development or feel free to skip around to the sections that interest you most. Now let’s jump in!
What is nonprofit professional development?
To start, like everything you do, nonprofit training is about your mission.
Sure, you can be “well-intended” and carry out your mission with “what seems right” methods backed by intuition. Too many nonprofits do. But the best and biggest funders want expertise – current expertise. They want to see numbers that justify your programs, and programs carried out by professionals following today’s best practices. And today’s best practices aren’t yesterday’s.
Your staff needs to keep up.
Professional development, especially in a nonprofit context, is all about aligning your mission goals with your staff’s personal and professional goals. That can take all sorts of forms, from an annual nonprofit training conference to a nonprofit course at your local community college, mentor/mentee relationships, and so much more.
For someone to grow – and therefore become a greater asset to your organization – they need to own their growth. You have to give them the choice – autonomy – to explore what’s right for them.
For you, as a nonprofit leader, there’s a risk in that autonomy. What if they get so good that they become attractive to other employers and get offered more money? Yeah, it’s going to happen. If you were their biggest supporter and encouraged their professional development, you’ll have an advocate in the community.
But remember, just like it’s better for you to keep staff, changing jobs is a major hassle. It’s easier for staff to stay with you. Therefore, if you encourage their professional development, they’ll probably stay because they want to.
So now that you understand the importance of ongoing professional training, what are your options in the nonprofit sector?
Nonprofit Professional Development and Training Resources
Lucky for you, there are many different types of nonprofit professional development, and no two resources will look the same. Let’s walk through some of the most popular training options for nonprofit teams, and you can decide what’s best for your organization!
Online Nonprofit Courses
Once considered the “only if you have to” nonprofit training choice, recent events have highlighted some significant advantages to online nonprofit courses. You have some great options.
You’ve heard that “free is good.” When you’re talking about nonprofit courses, free can be excellent.
But why would anyone offer a course, or even a webinar for free? Top among a lot of great reasons is the motivation of the instructor proving their expertise. The calculation is pretty simple.
Let’s say you’re a fundraising consultant to nonprofits. By offering an excellent free course on “Top Major Gifts Asking Techniques for Your Nonprofit,” you develop a reputation for being an expert. The nonprofits who can’t afford your services will be grateful for the content and sing your praises to others. The ones who can afford your services see that you know what you’re talking about.
Some of either group may take what you said and apply it on their own. However, a significant portion of those who take the course won’t have the time or skills to match your expertise. Those are the ones who will engage your services for pay. Clearly, there’s a real incentive to offer a solid course. It’s a win/win for everyone.
Conversely, a lot of free nonprofit training isn’t related to the company’s core product at all. For example, a computer software vendor will offer a webinar from a nonprofit marketing expert because they associate their brand with that expert, and that expert brings their audience to their business. Again, it’s solid content, and free.
You can check out some of our free nonprofit training courses here.
If free options are so good, why would you ever pay? Here are some top perks offered by paid nonprofit training courses that you can’t always get from their free counterparts:
- Production quality. The quality of a paid course is probably going to be higher, which is going to better keep the learner’s attention, and thus more learning will take place.
- Depth of learning. Paid courses tend to go more in-depth, even if it’s the same length as a free course.
- Organized for better learning. Paid nonprofit courses tend to be better organized for learning. The modules will be short enough for you to absorb the information. They may also offer supplemental material, like workbooks or resource sheets.
- Veteran instructors. Most people offering nonprofit courses, free or paid, come to you with nonprofit experience or very relevant business or government experience. It’s’ the ones who combine this with the ability to convey that information to you in an easily absorbed fashion that are worth paying for.
- Professional credits. Free courses rarely come with the credits needed to maintain professional accreditation, like the CFRE for fundraisers, or CPA for accountants. Even if you don’t need “the hours,” consider that if a course can offer credits, it’s an assurance that it’s quality instruction.
Take a look at our top paid offerings for online nonprofit training here.
Live seminars and conferences were the cash cow of the association world. As a board member for a local chapter of a professional association for seven years, I was surprised at how much the organization depended on live event revenue, especially when it was clear that online training was gaining in popularity. In fact, these seminars and conferences generated so much money that private companies were getting into the game, hopping from city to city with many of the same offerings using local talent.
Clearly, things have changed.
With online courses and webinars increasing in abundance, it will be interesting to see if live seminars become as robust a component of the nonprofit professional development landscape as before. Their primary advantage, however, is networking. Just running into interesting people in your same discipline is a major benefit. You can find sounding boards (or whining partners) for new ideas and life in your profession, often from people you would never otherwise meet from places you would never otherwise go. There’s also the emotional/mental break from being at your home or office.
Will these and other key advantages outweigh the costs? Maybe.
Even if the conference or seminar is local, you still have to travel to and from, and probably have meal costs either built into the event or on your own. If it’s far away, there’s transportation and even more time away from your organization’s work. That’s why these experiences may become less regular for you and their sponsors.
Academic degrees in the mission disciplines of nonprofits have been around for a while. You can get Bachelor’s, Master’s or even Doctorate degrees in social work, environmental studies, history, art therapy and so much more. Academic specialties like nonprofit management, or even sub-specialties in fundraising, are much more recent, and not nearly as common.
Still, since so many are offered online, it’s worth considering as a step on the path to nonprofit leadership.
I can tell you from experience that unless you have super great discipline, you probably won’t be as focused on your own as you would in an academic program. Getting graded really helps with this!
Most will give you a well-rounded set of nonprofit courses in a variety of essential disciplines, like marketing, fundraising, finance, legal issues, and more. Many top off your experience with a capstone project that brings together parts of several classes, focused on some aspect of your current organization.
You can also go for a more general degree, like an MBA or a Master’s in organizational leadership. Many of these programs offer formal or informal concentrations in nonprofit management and are more portable if you decide to leave the sector.
Podcasts are an excellent way to enhance your nonprofit professional expertise.
First of all, your ears may be the only thing you can lend during a lot of your day. Your eyes may be occupied with washing dishes, cleaning the house, or commuting to work.
Second, and just as important, many podcasts use an interview format that offers you a nice variety of content over time. Chances are you’ll get exposed to topics that you never would have if you weren’t a daily/weekly/monthly listener to your favorite audio source. Here are some excellent nonprofit podcasts to start you off.
Books about Nonprofit Leadership and Management
The definition of “book” is more fluid than ever before. Whether it’s a “traditional” paper from a known publisher, a self-published eBook from a new voice in the field, or a free download from a consultant’s website, they can all contain meaningful, career-changing information.
Therefore, the question really isn’t “should books be part of my professional development?” The better question, (in my opinion) is “how do I find the right books?”
Of course, you should be well-read in the specific field in which you aspire to, or profess expertise. If you call yourself a nonprofit human resource professional, you need to know the past and current literature related to nonprofit human resources. That’s a given. If you’re not sure where to begin, you can find some of the best nonprofit-driven books in our online bookstore!
Plus, over the years I’ve found the real gems of information are in the books that aren’t directed to nonprofits, but rather the books outside my field. For example, while I will argue all day that fundraising is not sales, there’s a lot that a fundraiser can learn from books on sales that aren’t covered in most books on nonprofit development. One of my favorite books is “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by Charles Duhigg. It has nothing directly to do with nonprofits but explains so much about donors and staff.
The difference between a book and a periodical is simple. Books should be (relatively) timeless and in-depth. Periodicals offer shorter content that’s more focused on the “here and now.” To be taken seriously in your profession, you need to keep up with the most recent developments and updates.
Each nonprofit subdiscipline has its publications, from commercial vendors to professional associations. For example, if you’re a higher education or private school development, alumni, or admission officer, you’ll want to subscribe to Currents, the publication of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).
In addition, anyone in the nonprofit world, staff or volunteer, would also benefit from the broader perspectives offered by non-discipline specific periodicals, like the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Times, Nonprofit Quarterly, or NonprofitPro.
Nonprofit Professional Development Ideas
Don’t worry. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the thought of incorporating all of the above into your already overburdened nonprofit life. You’re not alone. That’s one of the top reasons people throw up their hands and say “maybe later,” when it comes to nonprofit professional development.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some ways you can integrate professional development into your nonprofit life:
Organize mentorship/buddy programs.
Consider having “buddies” or “mentors” do some of the training. Having a person who is more experienced, but not an individual’s supervisor is a great way to accomplish ongoing nonprofit training. That person need not be in their discipline, either. It will be a great learning experience for both.
Host a staff book club.
How about a book club? While reading a book is great, a gathering of people who read the same book and discuss it is even better. This way, team members can share thoughts and ideas that come up while diving deeper into a new subject.
Get greater value from group training.
One way to make learning more exciting is by organizing it as a group experience. A lot of paid (or free!) nonprofit courses are the same price whether you watch the content by yourself, or as a group. This way, it’s a better value and team members can learn from each other at the same time.
Incorporate a social aspect to training.
Create a social media group among co-learners. This can be within your organization or across nonprofits. Discuss the latest articles read, nonprofit courses attended, recommend podcasts, and more.
Bring in sector leaders to share valuable knowledge.
Hosting external speakers is a great way to engage with your staff and encourage learning. Whether you do this online or in-person, getting an outside speaker to give your staff a new perspective is very useful. You may already be paying a consultant who can do this, or you can enlist a board member or bring in someone from a similar organization that doesn’t compete in your area.
Encourage team members to share their own experiences.
Be sure to recruit internal speakers as well! You probably have expertise right in your own organization that everyone can benefit from, whether it’s in their discipline or not. This is also great training for up and coming staff who should go on to making presentations at professional conferences.
Make the most out of your staff meetings.
Your staff meetings can be a valuable training tool. I worked with a nonprofit museum that held an all-staff meeting daily in their center hall. About 50 people stood in a circle to hear announcements and updates for 15 minutes every morning. A fun feature each day was a three-minute presentation from a section of the museum about the latest findings in their area. Plus, each day the gift shop demonstrated a new toy, book, or another item. Nobody looked bored!
Nonprofit Professional Development FAQ
So you understand the importance of nonprofit professional development, and you’re looking to implement these practices within your own organization. We’ve put together a list of some top questions concerning the establishment of nonprofit training. Let’s walk through each one to become better prepared for your own training experiences!
1. How do I get started with nonprofit professional development?
If you’re new to professional development, or your program is just perfunctory, getting started (or getting the most of your nonprofit training) can be daunting. However, like your mission programming, client marketing, revenue generation and so much more in your organization, you need goals.
Let’s start with what isn’t a goal? “Go to one conference of your choice,” at the bottom of a list that includes more “serious” goals, like the number of client visits or revenue projections. It reinforces that professional development is one extra thing that you should squeeze in if you have time.
Instead, take a page from grant writing. Think of it in terms of inputs, outputs, and outcomes.
- Inputs: The free and paid training, podcasts, books and periodicals and more are all inputs – and like any good program, you should have multiple inputs.
- Outputs: The output is what you want your staff person to do with all of these: for example, increase staff retention rate by 10% without increasing costs.
- Outcomes: The outcome is something like “create a happier workforce that is more dedicated to our mission.” (And don’t forget to evaluate your outcome, like with a survey.)
There are no “ta-da” moments (imagine a magician unveiling the cut-in-half assistant as a whole) in this process. Professional development is ongoing, supported by your nonprofit’s leadership, and among staff themselves.
2. Is staff training expensive?
All this is good, but you must be worried about the cost. I know I would be.
There’s some good news here. The costs aren’t bad, and even better when you consider your return on investment.
Obviously, free nonprofit courses are free, and most podcasts are, too. Paid courses can drop substantially on a per-person basis if you engage them as a group; same with bringing in an outside speaker.
If you decide on online education, remember that it’s saving you hotel, food, and transportation costs that would otherwise go to a live seminar or conference. Books may not be free, (although many are) but they can be passed around the office, as can periodicals. Assigning a staff person to speak on a topic to the rest of the staff won’t cost you anything, although it would be nice to provide something like a gift card to a local restaurant for their effort.
The return for all of this? Huge. Better engaged staff who will be up to date on the latest methods, and more likely to stay longer – which saves you money!
3. How do I get my staff to participate in development opportunities?
That’s the biggest question when it comes to nonprofit professional development.
One of the biggest obstacles is that a lot of staff think of their careers as “extra” when it comes to working for your mission. To a point, that’s good. You want dedicated staff. However, there can be a downside when they don’t make the connection between their personal improvement and their ability to carry out your mission as best as possible. As much as you can, encourage staff and volunteers to see taking a nonprofit course, for example, as an exciting way to improve their part of your enterprise.
Yet on a deeply personal level, that may not be enough. As they say in sales, people buy emotionally and justify logically. The best way to encourage attendance is with positive emotion – like fun! Who says a nonprofit course can’t be fun?
It can be hard to be fun for a lot of disciplines – at least for an outsider. I can’t imagine having fun learning accounting, but there are lots of people who do (God bless them). And if the nonprofit course isn’t fun enough on its own, it’s definitely on you to be engaging. That way, more people will attend with greater enthusiasm.
The most powerful way to build professional development into your nonprofit‘s culture is to start with yourself. Be the role model.
However, being the role model isn’t about announcing that you’re jetting off to some exotic location for a three-day professional retreat, leaving behind resentful staff toiling in the trenches.
Being a role model is about being seen learning. Have a book with you and talk about it with your staff. Ask about what they’re reading. Attend a group online nonprofit course with your staff, then engage them about it later. Recommend a podcast that you listen to. Show that you make time for learning as a prompt for them to do the same.
Your taking these and similar steps is a powerful statement of the importance of ongoing education. Because if your greatest asset is your people, then professional development is a great way to protect your assets – and it starts with you.