How important is training?

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Training in nonprofits or associations can be difficult. Many times, it’s referred to, rather offhandedly in a budget line, as part of the overhead. In fact, that term has gotten so popular, people are writing books and giving TED talks about it. Capacity building is great for folks in the for profit world (well kind of) but continue to support the workers on the other side can be seen as a misuse of grant or donated dollars.

Leading a past Technology Leadership Academy, and I had an attendee who was talking about her frustration that they have 57 staff, and 2 people who are responsible (and maybe each of them at a quarter of the time) for the training that goes on around specific tech. That might sound semi-reasonable, but when you start to think about how far reaching technology is in most of our organizations today, having what amounts to half a person supporting people through onboarding and maintenance of the things like email, phones, databases, reporting, financials, fundraising, website, content management, marketing, governance, and the list goes on, is a little bit terrifying.

And that’s just a basic list of what what most nonprofits and associations use to manage their day to day responsibilities. And not taking into consideration the external users (and now my english teacher is cringing because I just started 2 sentences with “and”. Oh well)

As a training director, I see this problem several times a day. There’s the funder and many times the attitudes of folks that would provide the dollars to help us meet our missions more successfully are woefully thin on the ground. Those that do provide those dollars are having a tough time getting good data back on how impactful those programs are, which makes them nervous about donating in that area again.  The best training tends to happen in one on one or small group environments, and usually you need paper and a kind of blended learning environment that actively engages and allows the attendee to become a participant.

There’s also the time/capacity issue of folks: when you hire in a non profit unless you’re overflowing with staff, you usually need them to hit the ground running with limited time for training. And finally, you have a high level of burnout and lower level of performance management support, many times with coaching sessions indicating to staff (many of whom aren’t well paid because, hey, they work for a nonprofit) that they need more training, the org doesn’t have the budget (or has very limited), and that that staffer should seek it on their own time and dime.

When you start to think about how we can support leaders (executives, sr. staff, champions, whatever you call them), this topic can get exponentially more difficult. The courses become more expenses and exclusive, and those that are more affordable can be seen as less valuable. However, the small to medium sized groups have a tougher time gaining entry to the expensive and exclusive.

How can we overcome this and make training at the forefront:

1) Build training and capacity building into your organizational strategic plan
Your people work hard and they should be helped at every step of the way. It’s important to get buy in from leadership, board, and your major donors who help support your organizational mission and goals. Also, it’s important to highlight and underscore that even for the ED or CEO should get ongoing training, because everyone needs training, no matter their level in the organization.

2) Think short term and long term and be agile to changing situations in your world
When you do your SWOT analysis of your organization, make sure you don’t leave out the people (including volunteers) and how they contribute to the overall ROI of your programming and operations. Create a visual roadmap (seriously, draw it out even if you use stick people) to think about how your org will look from a people perspective in 1 month, 3 months, 1 year, 3 years. Scale it up and scale it down, and just like you spend so much time crunching your budget forecasting, make sure you pay that much attention to your training needs as well because well-trained people can help you meet or exceed your financial needs.

3) Ask your people what they want and help them figure out what they need
Sure, maybe we all want to take that executive leadership course from Cornell, but financially, it may not be possible. However, you may never know that your database guy or your marketing manager might be just as happy with a local course or easy to access blended event from a state university just across the border. Ask people “what do you want to grow in to do your job better” and have a maturity grid that outlines the goals you as the executive or department head want your organization to achieve to take your staff feedback into consideration with that the people and the organization needs. And who knows, you may qualify for a group discount (seriously though, eCornell has great group discounts and you might be able to call to get a nonprofit rate).

These are just three suggestions and as every organization is different, every training need will be different. Use your strategic plan to not only think about your lofty org goals, but to take the time each year as you revisit your plan, to think about the people that will help you meet them.

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