by Matt Hugg of Nonprofit.Courses
How many times have you heard someone say, “I went to school…the School of Hard Knocks”?
This humorous nod at non-traditional education can be a proud declaration or a depressing admission. Either way, the subject would probably have rather not gone through it.
Then there’s “on-the-job” learning. That’s like the School of Hard Knocks except the learner figures things out as they go along because they can see those hard knocks coming.
Nonprofit staff and volunteers tend to do a lot of on-the-job learning while serving a lot of people who attended the School of Hard Knocks.
You could be thinking, “There’s nothing wrong with either of these learning methods.” And you’re right. There are a lot of valuable, practical lessons in both. And you’re not likely to forget them, even though you might want to.
The problem is that they’re both highly inefficient and, worse, entirely random. You never know what lessons you’ll end up with either—and some of those lessons could be entirely wrong. The point is, there’s no surefire way to build capacity in any organization through learn-as-you-go education. What you need is systematic training for capacity building.
Consider the following questions as you develop your ongoing training programs.
In what areas does your team need strategic training?
Effective training for capacity building all begins with knowing why you’re there in the first place. In nonprofits, it’s called a mission. In a nonprofit, everything circles back to the mission—whether that’s saving the whales, eliminating homelessness, providing youth with unique educational opportunities, or one of the millions of other causes. If someone’s role is not mission-connected, you have to question why they’re doing it.
Yet it’s easy to lose track of the mission when you’re in the thick of an accounting audit or a human resources review. This is why dedication to mission is often a major job requirement for any nonprofit position. It’s also why learning about your mission is the bedrock of any nonprofit training program.
Start with a review of your history.
Every organization—business, nonprofit, or government—has a heroic origin story. One person saw or experienced something that couldn’t be lived with and came up with a solution. Maybe that solution was national independence. Maybe it was a better widget. Maybe it was giving local kids something to do after school.
Whatever it was, they started working on it, gathered others around, and began making their vision—a world where that problem was solved—into a reality. Whether you offer this story via a video, podcast, or a beautifully written story, everyone needs to know how you started—and most importantly—why you’re still there.
Consider why your organization is critical to its beneficiaries.
The key to understanding why your organization still exists is to get into the heads of those you serve. This is one of the most neglected parts of any capacity-building strategy, but you could also argue that it’s the most important part. Whether you call the people you serve clients, patients, students, constituents, or customers, you will not flourish as an organization if you don’t thoroughly understand your mission recipient’s needs.
The problem is that it’s easy to trick yourself. Were you once a beneficiary yourself? How long ago was that? Perhaps you’ve been serving your mission for what seems like a lifetime, so of course you understand those you serve. You come at it with some arrogance when you think, “They don’t know what they need, but I do.” Nonprofits fall into this trap all the time.
Sometimes you can walk in their shoes. An organization that aids people with spinal cord injuries encourages their staff to spend at least one day a year doing their job from a wheelchair. A nonprofit that works with the homeless offers staff an experience where they live on their city’s streets for 24 hours.
Whether you can directly feel the pain of those you serve, you can certainly study it and look for opportunities to learn about it—either directly or indirectly. As an organization, ongoing learning about those you serve needs to be a top priority.
How can you improve your capacity building training?
The above is an important baseline training strategy for strengthening organizational infrastructure. It’s exactly the leverage you need for deeper staff (and, for nonprofits, volunteer) engagement with their function in your organization.
But, to run an effective operation, your training needs to go further, to cover program-specific topics that allow your team to better fulfill their role. That’s where real change and real capacity building starts. Here are ten tips.
1. Create a training culture that works.
If there is a training culture at all in an organization, it often doesn’t work. In a lot of nonprofits, “training” is a euphemism for “paid vacation.” The staff member is allotted a sum of money for what’s expected to be a conference, usually far away. Some attendees faithfully go to sessions, but a lot seem to find local shopping more interesting and attend only the most compelling presentations.
The key is to avoid this by taking a strategic approach to training that your team is actually excited to participate in. And, really, learning – just like capacity building – is an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.
2. Pay for staff training.
More and more, nonprofits and businesses are zeroing out their training budgets with the idea that either “we hire people who know the job, so we don’t need to train” or “if we train them, they’ll use it to find a new job and someone else will benefit.”
However, the opposite is true in both cases. While you certainly look for candidates with the best skills, nobody can come ready with every skill that’s required. And, if they are that good, they’ll use their training to create networks for you and your organization to get more knowledge and better people.
And that “they’ll leave” argument? Again, the opposite is true. Don’t train, and they’ll leave. Every employee and volunteer wants to grow. If you help them grow, they’ll become loyal, stay longer, and your organization will benefit—both from what they learned and from increased staff retention.
3. Encourage teaching.
Encouraging a culture of teaching at your organization benefits more than just the learners involved. Teaching not only gives status to the instructor, but it forces the instructor to learn as well—even if only to avoid embarrassment.
Okay, that’s a bit cynical. But teaching is a great way to engage veteran staff on a meaningful level. Whether they teach your own staff through internal programs or others at outside venues, their instruction means you (and your eager learners) benefit from what they know.
4. Make ongoing learning essential.
Nothing stays the same. What anyone learned when they started a job could be different six months later. This is especially important and true for disciplines that have life-and-death consequences, such as medical and social service professions.
If clients know they are not getting the most current service methods, they’ll look to other organizations to fulfill their needs. Plus, as an organization, you risk liability issues if your staff training isn’t up to date.
5. Incentivize education.
If your staff is overworked and, at a nonprofit, likely underpaid, they’re not likely to participate in training if there’s no reward for doing so.
So how can you incentivize your training program? Perhaps you create a sophisticated system of badges and recognitions with rewards in time off, pay, or other goodies. However, you might also take sincere interest in what the trainee learned. Either way, it’s important for your staff to know that there is a reason beyond “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” in putting in the effort to get trained.
6. Make training fun.
Yes, it’s a cliché. But, yes, it’s important. Nobody likes to be talked at all day. No, you don’t need jugglers and clowns.
Instead, check out the resources at the Association for Talent Development (formerly known as the Association for Training and Development). As professional trainers, they’ll tell you that physicality, audience engagement, and gamification can do more than entertain—they can get information into the brains of the audience members effectively.
7. Train in short bites.
The human brain takes information in like pouring water into a jug with a funnel. You need the right speed and the right amount to get it all in. Too much, too fast, and some will spill over. The best training with the least spillage happens in short bites over time.
8. Put training to work as soon as possible.
A tremendous amount of the value anyone gets from training is lost because it is simply forgotten. Why? The time between its introduction and its use, if ever, is way too long.
The first question anyone should ask when it comes to training is “how and when will you use this?” This is not to suggest that all training must have a practical, immediate application. Sometimes you need long-term theoretical education to put practical knowledge into context. If that’s the case, no problem. Just know that going in.
9. Educate on the cutting edge and the basics.
Technology has a way of making us think that some things are brand-new when really what’s new is the gadget and not the basic methodology.
For example, someone introduced to crowdfunding may think that it’s a great new way to raise money. Really, crowdfunding is a teched-up version of the old neighborhood campaigns—except the community isn’t just the six houses adjacent to yours but all of your Facebook friends.
If you know the basics, then you can not only recognize the latest and greatest for what it is, you can apply lessons from the old way to make the new way even better.
10. Assign a training partner.
A training partner isn’t necessarily a guru in the trainee’s discipline, although they certainly can be. It could also be their boss, although that can put an unwelcome power dynamic into the relationship.
A training partner discusses available training opportunities, encourages training to occur, expresses genuine interest in what their partner learned, and helps them talk through how it will be used.
If you think your nonprofit needs capacity building—whether you define that as generating more revenue, building a stronger board, instituting better financial controls, more effectively carrying out your programs, or all of the above and more—hiring new staff and expecting them to learn on the job won’t get you there. At best, it may fill your short-term need. But it will never build a sustainable organization.
To build a sustainable organization, you need systematic training that accounts for how, why, and when people learn and motivates them to do so. That’s how you leverage training to meet the most important responsibility a nonprofit or any organization can have: fulfilling your mission.
About the Author
Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, e-learning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.
He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting and Philander Family Values: Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff, and Volunteers and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.
Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government entities and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities. Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College, and Thomas Edison State University via the Web and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Matt has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia, and several nonprofits.
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