Professional Development: Why nonprofit organizations must invest in their staff

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We may think we’ve put the overhead myth to bed once and for all, but there’s at least one place where we may still indulge in it: professional development.

Liz Rejman, associate director, fundraising operations, Pathways to Education, says, “Usually nonprofits are focused on the here and now, with a sense of urgency about bringing in donations and executing programs. Often we don’t invest in ourselves, viewing professional development as a diversion of donor dollars from essential programming.”

Even among organizations that value professional development, it’s often the first thing to get cut when resources are tight, says Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN).

When the ONN looked at professional development, they found that “investments in training within the sector are modest at best, with limited capacity to develop the learning opportunities that are required...that the value of professional development was not sufficiently understood or respected in the sector overall.” This was especially challenging in rural and smaller communities.

This isn’t what other sectors are doing — the US-based Association for Talent Development found that for-profit organizations spent $1,273 per employee in 2016 on direct learning expenditure and offered an average of 34.1 formal learning hours per employee. Happily, this doesn’t have to be what professional development looks like (or costs!) in the Canadian charitable landscape.

Why is professional development important?

“Given that the bulk of expenses in the nonprofit sector is staffing, we will do a better job of our mission if our people are strong,” says Taylor. “If we want to do a stellar job at our mission, we have to have the right people in place and equip them with the skills and knowledge they need.”

Karen Whiteman, director, policy & programs for CCVO (Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations) says this isn’t simply a question of hiring well-qualified staff. “The world is changing so quickly. You need to keep up or your organization will get lost. It would be like a small business not moving beyond paper billing.” The HR Council agrees. “Professional development in the nonprofit sector is a vital tool for strengthening organizational effectiveness in the face of continuous change.”

And, staff and board members recognize their own need for PD. A 2013 Grand Valley State University study found that 66% of nonprofit organizations wanted training in technology, marketing, communications, and social media, 53% sought training in program evaluation and data-based decision-making and 57% asked for board training. Nonprofit leaders also described concern about their lack of sophistication on legal issues.

This may be especially important as the demographics of the sector change. A report by the Mowat Centre recognizes that, “As Canada faces a slowdown in labour force growth, the nonprofit sector will need a deliberate human capital renewal strategy to strengthen its capacity to innovate and compete with the private and public sectors for skilled workers.” And with many nonprofits lacking middle management, either due to size or cutbacks, there’s a risk of losing knowledge and experience as older generations retire.

Professional development is also vital to the individual employee or job seeker. Eileen Chadnick, author, coach, and principal of Big Cheese Coaching puts it bluntly: “He or she who does not grow risks their career. In today’s innovation economy, and competitive landscape, if you’re not growing in terms of your skillset, resiliency, and leadership, you are less valuable to both your existing employer and future employers.”

Jane Snyder, project manager who works with nonprofits in entrepreneurship and the environment through The Working Centre, points out that some skills — such as digital marketing — are constantly changing and so “what works now won’t work next year.” Taylor adds that professional development is top of mind for younger people entering the sector as a way of building their resume with certifications and moving past precarious work into more secure positions. Snyder points out that participating in professional development can also prevent the social isolation that often comes with a job search.

Why organizations don’t invest in professional development

Consistently two main reasons are given for why organizations don’t support professional development.

The first reason is simple but challenging: funding. To the concern about spending donor dollars, Rejman says, “If you want me to use donor dollars as efficiently as possible, if I’m well-trained, I won’t waste time or energy on things that won’t work, and can take advantage of real opportunities.” Another challenge of funding, as Taylor says, is that, “Not a lot of funders invest in professional development. More and more do see the need, but not enough. This is an ongoing challenge for organizations that depend on government funding.” [See our companion article that lists organizations that invest in professional development.]

The second reason is a bit more complicated. Whiteman often hears the following rationale, “I don’t want to invest in professional development because they will leave anyway.” To this, Taylor says, “The nature of our work is tough work with limited resources and it is disappointing when staff leave, but because there isn’t always a pipeline for leadership, moving will occur.” She adds, “That’s not a good excuse for not investing in them while they are there.”

Whiteman suggests nonprofits adopt a systems-thinking approach that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The CCVO describes three levels of necessary capacity-building: for the individual, the organization and the sector. Whiteman says, “The whole sector is stronger if we all invest in professional development.” Rejman concurs, “An ethical mistake or even a misstep by one fundraiser affects the whole industry, so the more we work to train all fundraisers — or other staff — the better it is for the whole.” Taylor reminds organizations that they also get staff other organizations have invested in, while Chadnick says that “People will want to stay longer, be more engaged for a longer tenure, and give back more if they are growing on the job. Investing in the growth and development of your staff isn’t just a nice-to-have but a must-have.”

In a companion piece to this article, we outline some practical resources for individuals and organizations looking to create professional development opportunities on a budget. Click here to read more.

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.

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