Continuing Education for Nonprofit Professionals: A Guide

Guest Post by Matt Hugg, president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses.

Do you view continuing education for your nonprofit staff as a cost? There’s certainly an expense to it. Even if you don’t go away to a seminar or conference, the best continuing education has a price tag—if not in money then in time. Paying somebody to be away for a day that isn’t focused on their primary mission-focused activity can pinch your budget and put a burden on everybody around them.

However, it may be time to flip your perspective. While yes, continuing education requires an investment (either directly or indirectly) for your team member to take a course to improve their skills, the benefits far outweigh the expense.

Let’s look at four main reasons why:

1. Mission-effectiveness

The most important value for nonprofit staff continuing education is to improve mission effectiveness. Nearly every profession changes over time, and in our highly interconnected, technology-driven world, what was the standard for any process yesterday can be literally obsolete tomorrowHaving your staff up to date on current methodologies will end up saving you time and money by allowing you to pursue your mission in the most effective way possible.

As you probably know from your own daily life, the people who are using your services expect you to offer it to them in the most time-efficient manner you can. This reflects their own shortened attention span and the pressure on their lives for so much else to get done—just like the pressure on you. The good news is that a lot of training is focused on introducing new technology so that you can offer your services in a timelier fashion.

Even better? The more time you save in offering a quality service, the less money it costs to deliver that service, and the more clients your mission can serve for the same amount of money.

But your financial issues go further than that. In some instances, you even open yourself up to liability issues when you do not offer the most up-to-date trends and service methodologies available. In this case, the money you spend on training may be recouped in lower insurance premiums and less long-term risk from dissatisfied constituents.

2. Staff retention

Nearly all staff want to be successful in their job. As such, offering training opportunities to team members is a great way to show that you care about their success in serving your mission. Further, staff and volunteers who feel like their nonprofit cares for them are much more likely to continue serving that nonprofit, even when they might get financial gain by moving to another organization.

It all starts with your team’s personal satisfaction. You might be surprised at how much pride people take in doing their job well. While a paycheck is certainly important, after somebody has met their basic needs, growth and learning take precedence. Being able to feed that need leads to substantially improved morale.

You may be tempted to ask why you should pay for staff development when your own staff doesn’t stay with the organization very long. And the answer is this: although the lack of professional development isn’t the only reason why people aren’t staying, it could certainly be a contributing factor. If you’re seeing a lot of staff or volunteer turnover, it’s important to look at your learning culture—or lack thereof. Your staff might be telling you that they’re moving because they need more money. That could be true, but rarely is anything so simple. There are likely to be a lot of other contributing factors, with a lack of professional growth opportunities near the top of the list.

People change jobs frequently for a wide variety of reasons. Having a positive professional development experience can lessen the temptation for them to leave. Even when they do, the continuous learning you provided will make them advocates for you in the community and among their colleagues and friends long after they’ve left the organization.

This will even help you attract more and better applicants for future positions! When the word gets out that your nonprofit is a great place to work because it supports its employees and volunteers, the cost of recruiting staff goes down, and the qualifications of those you recruit go up.

3. Improved culture

An innovative culture of learning can cascade into some very positive results for your nonprofit, and it’s something that you certainly don’t want to miss out on.

Positive continuing education experiences provide increased demand for positive continuing education experiences. Many times, staff and volunteers want to train their colleagues in their newfound skills—and you start to see a snowball effect. Who knows, you might even hear folks talking over lunch about how much they learn from the latest training resource!

Ultimately, a culture of learning will save your nonprofit time and money and could even bring in some additional revenue. When continuing education leads to a more efficient methodology for working with clients that spreads throughout the organization, your operations as a whole stand to gain a lot. When the happy staff and volunteers chat up your nonprofit to their friends and neighbors, the entire community is more likely to support the organization with their gifts, time, and dedication.

To accomplish this, consider setting training goals for each person related to their specific responsibility. This isn’t just “go to a seminar or conference this year.” It’s important to tie professional development goals directly to their role in the mission of the organization.

For example, a goal such as “Learn how to build relationships with foundation funders and demonstrate proficiency by building five relationships that lead to gifts,” would be ideal for a junior grant writer who stays in the office and submits a number of grant applications.

4. External requirements

In addition to the previously established reasons for providing continuing education for your staff, there might be some external factors at play as well. It’s essential that your licensed staff meet professional requirements for their chosen field. Government agencies require that your social workers, for example, maintain their licensed status to perform their mission-related activities with your clients.

It’s also important that staff whose professions rely on certifications maintain their status as well. These are more than career hash marks to list on a resume. By hiring a fundraiser with a CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) designation, you tell your donors that this person knows what they’re doing and commits to specific ethical standards. In addition, maintaining their designation keeps them up to date on the latest techniques that they will put the work for your important mission.

A lot of nonprofits will shift the expense of maintaining licenses and certifications onto the worker. Don’t do that.

Many managers justify this by saying that if they pay for training and certification for someone who leaves, they will be taking with them and benefit their next employer. This is a convenient rationalization for savings that will cost you significantly in the long run. First of all, this makes you very vulnerable to others poaching your staff by simply offering to pay for these professional development expenses. But more likely, the burden of those expenses will be a long-term irritation that will contribute to employee dissatisfaction, so that when approached, they are more likely to leave your organization for better opportunities.

There’s no doubt that a strong continuing education program can make a difference for your nonprofit—it’s just surprising how much of a difference it can make. Continuing education is more than sending somebody to a conference or watching a webinar. That’s just the start.

Continuing education can impact the entire organization with much more than the skills learned on the day of the program. Ultimately, continuing education for a nonprofit isn’t an expense, it’s an investment in your employees, your volunteers, and most of all in a culture that multiplies the benefits of the time spent in front of a screen or in an audience.


About Matt

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, eLearning 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 Philanders 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. Mr. Hugg 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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