Professional development on a budget: Key resources so you don't have to break the bank

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Last week we discussed why, despite its importance to creating a strong a vibrant sector, professional development is still ignored by many nonprofit and charitable organizations. You can read that article by clicking here. Since funding challenges are a key barrier for organizations to be able to offer learning opportunities to staff, we thought we'd round up some key tips for both organizations and individuals who want to stay committed to professional development - without breaking the bank.



Five ways to create a culture of learning at your organization

1. Incorporate professional development into your strategic planning. For Pathways to Education — with their educational focus — one of their goals is to develop and leverage a motivated, high-performance team.

2.Think about professional development as a percentage of payroll, says Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). Even if it’s 1%, it’s easier to put in the budget and to measure.

3. Train leaders as coaches, says Eileen Chadnick, author, coach, and principal of Big Cheese Coaching. “Having external coaches is great, but few organizations can afford to sustain this. Instead, there’s a strong return on investment in equipping leaders with coaching skills so that they can help grow a team’s capacity and so every conversation can offer an opportunity to develop people.”

4. Build a professional development plan with your employees. Taylor says this should be part of an annual performance review, but “what makes it really stick is revisiting it on a regular basis in conversations and meetings.”

5. Fail forward. Chadnick says, “Failures can become opportunities to learn and grow.”

Six steps to making your own professional development plan

1. Step back periodically to think about your own learning goals, says Chadnick. This should include not only hard skills (i.e. marketing for nonprofits), but also learning about yourself and skills such as emotional intelligence or stress management. This can be done annually, quarterly or even monthly.

2. Think professional development through with others.

Liz Rejman, associate director, fundraising operations, Pathways to Education, found hiring a coach helpful, but also suggests a mentor or a peer can offer a low-risk way of considering possible strategies.

3. “Set intention and be concrete with actionable commitments around your learning goals,” says Chadnick, rather than simply approaching professional development as something you vaguely know you should do.

4. Do your research. Before presenting an opportunity to your employer, Jane Snyder, a project manager who works with nonprofits with The Working Centre, suggests, “Make a plan for how this will benefit your organization and your work, and present that.” Similarly, she advises asking organizers about the outcomes of a workshop or course before committing to it, to be sure it meets your needs.

5. Make the most of events. Snyder recommends, “Carry business cards to in-person workshops. Set up a time to meet with the presenter later if you have specific questions. Talk with other attendees at a workshop to understand their learning goals and what they do.”

6. Just do it. “Everyone is busy and professional development ends up being postponed,” says Rejman. “It doesn’t have to be perfect – just get started.”

Professional development doesn’t have to mean attending an expensive conference: 10 creative strategies

1. Share what you’ve learned. While peer learning can refer to any way that colleagues share knowledge, Pathways to Education’s fundraising team has implemented a strategy where any time a team member attends a professional development event, at the next team meeting they share the Single Most Important Thing (SMIT) they learned. “This doesn’t take a lot of time, opens up dialogue, and means people participate in professional development with an eye to sharing the experience.”

2. Think informal learning. This can mean meeting with a coach or mentor, setting up a buddy system, joining a LinkedIn group, following good thinkers on Twitter, or simply having discussion over coffee with a colleague. Listen to a podcast (HINT: The Small Nonprofit podcast is a great place to start!)

3. Use books. The Working Centre has occasionally bought a copy of an important book for all staff to read and discuss together, while other organizations might have one person read a book and lead a lunch and learn based on its ideas from the book.

4. Volunteer. ONN staff have a certain number of volunteer hours to contribute to the organization of their choice, which Taylor sees as an interesting, low-cost flexible form of professional development.

5. Go online. Whether it’s a one-time workshop, a webinar, a course or a full certificate or degree, there’s never been more access to learning right at your fingertips and for a reasonable cost. Snyder notes that 80-90% of people who take longer courses don’t finish, so she recommends short, specific online training, or committing to a regular learning time. Snyder also suggests Eventbrite and Meetup as sites that offer professional development events.

6. Keep it short and simple. When training staff about technology, Pathways to Education limits training to a maximum of ten minutes of digestible tips and tricks.

7. Talk about sensitive topics at a time when nothing has happened. Pathways to Education does an annual ethics session where they discuss hypothetical scenarios. “This is a low-risk conversation that allows real learning and reflection,” says Rejman.

8. Work with other organizations. CCVO (Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations) sets up communities of practice where organizations exchange best practices in in-person meetings, rotating between organizations. This can be adapted locally, whether at this scale or more simply with initiatives like sharing the cost of first-aid training with other local nonprofits, or other training with other organizations in your subsector, says Taylor. CCVO also offers a cohort-based leadership development program that allows executive directors “a place where they can safely lift the cone of silence” and learn together.

9. Ask others what they do. Snyder subscribes to enewsletters from similar organizations in other countries or areas of the country. She also checks with colleagues in person and on LinkedIn or other groups to see what they find helpful in their own learning.

10. Think outside the box. Snyder says, “We know from brain science that it’s good for us to continue to learn any new skill, so even if it’s a new dance step or cuisine, these help us understand the world from a different point of view and thus help our work.”

More great resources

Fund the People is a US campaign formed by foundations to invest in people who work in the nonprofit sector. Includes a useful toolkit.

What Colour is Your Parachute

Karen Whiteman suggests a volunteer centre is often a useful hub where people can seek local professional development ideas.

CharityVillage offers about 15 free webinars annually on a variety of topics of interest to nonprofit professionals, says Marina Dawson, manager, community & content “We think of these as a national lunch-and-learn (or perhaps a morning coffee learning session, depending on where you are located in the country!).” Each year CharityVillage also runs a popular 3-part series called A Day in the Life, which features subject matter relating to soft skills or other topics of interest in the day-to-day life of nonprofit professionals. Webinars are recorded and are publicly available.

Charity Village also offers 13 online, self-paced courses that cost $89 each for three-month access (with some courses bundled together with discounted pricing). These courses are a more in-depth exploration and include downloadable resources that can be used in an organization, videos, quizzes, a final exam, and a certificate awarded when the final exam has been passed. 

Foundations making PD grants:

Be sure to register for the free CharityVillage Webinar, Government Funding for Hiring and Training Staff, on February 7, 2019, where we'll discuss how to find funding for training your employees. Details and registration here.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.


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