By DonorSearch

We all have opportunities to learn and advance in our personal and professional lives. While large corporations often offer structured learning opportunities that their employees can take advantage of in order to continue developing in their careers, nonprofits often don’t have the budget or flexibility to invest in such programs. 

However, that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities for development in the nonprofit sector. Actually, nonprofits that encourage their employees to further develop skills in the sector often experience higher levels of staff retention and satisfaction. 

One of the silver linings of the ongoing pandemic is that professionals in all sectors are finding ways to fill their newfound time with the development of new skills, especially with the evolution of additional online training resources. If you’ve found yourself in this position, you may not know exactly how to get started. You know that you want to take classes and develop skills, but aren’t quite sure where to look.

That’s why we’ve created this guide. Here at the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, we’ve committed ourselves to the continuous development and improvement of individuals in the nonprofit sector. We’ve been helping nonprofit professionals improve their skills for over 70 years. From our experience, we’ve discovered the following tips that help nonprofit professionals start their journey to development: 

  1. Commit to Continuous Development
  2. Consider Your Opportunities for Improvement
  3. Define Your Professional Goals
  4. Learn and Practice New Skills

The resources for nonprofit professional development are diverse and extensive, making it sometimes overwhelming to get started sifting through them. With the right approach, however, you can dive into the opportunities and get the most out of the learning experience. Let’s get started. 

1. Commit to Continuous Development

It would be very naive to think that we have learned everything there is to know about the nonprofit sector from our experience in the field or even past areas of study. Not only is there always room for improvement and learning in any field, but especially as the sector continuously evolves, so should your understanding of it. 

For example, ten to twenty years ago, your nonprofit likely had a very different website and used technology in a fairly basic capacity. Now, it’s become a daily part of our lives and requires additional expertise to optimize. Additionally, machine learning has allowed nonprofits to process information faster and more accurately than ever before. However, this information is useless if you don’t know how to use it for better fundraising outreach and marketing. 

When individuals recognize that there are always opportunities for learning, they can commit to continuous development for themselves. 

Essentially, this means the learning process is never over. They’ll continue to look for learning opportunities to constantly optimize their own understanding. A staff member who commits to learning about developing technology will absorb the information, become an expert, then start looking for the next opportunity to enhance their own skills. Committing to this mindset is the first step to ensure you’re getting the most out of your development opportunities. 

In order to keep up with the ever-advancing aspects of the field, many nonprofits are putting together their own learning opportunities for their staff to take advantage of using learning management solutions. These courses tend to discuss the specific application of various skills to the nonprofit itself. For example, a nonprofit might put together a course for their staff members to understand exactly how that organization uses machine learning to enhance their strategies.

While these opportunities are a great way to learn within the organization, nonprofits rarely address every skill that nonprofits need to develop. They tend to develop tactical courses for very specific aspects of their organization itself. As an individual professional, you have the opportunity to take your development a step further by identifying the skills you need the most help with, then honing in on those skills in your learning process.

2. Consider Your Opportunities for Improvement

As we mentioned before, it’s naive to think that you have no opportunities for improvement in the nonprofit sector. It can take some humbling to start thinking about the experiences that will most help you succeed. 

While it can be very validating to take a course on a subject you know you enjoy and are good at, it’s not necessarily the best way to grow as a professional. A much better approach is to ask yourself what are your weaknesses and best opportunities for improvement, then look for ways to enhance those skills. 

Take inventory of the skills necessary at your position at the organization (or analyze the job description for the position you aspire to be in). Then, honestly consider which of those skills you have down pat and which ones you might benefit from a little additional training in. Some types of skills you might consider may include: 

  • Strategic planning
  • Communications
  • Ethical leadership
  • Budgeting
  • Adaptability and flexibility

If you’re unsure of what skills you need to enhance (or what skills your organization would most benefit from you learning), consider asking a professional in the field. If you hire a fundraising consultant, for example, they can help you understand which elements of your strategy might be lacking. Then you can identify the skills that can help maximize and strengthen those strategic elements. 

This guide explains how different consultants can help with various aspects of your strategy. For instance, it explains that some consultants can help nonprofits optimize their annual fundraising strategy. If they find that this is a weakness for your organization, a consultant can explain how it may be an issue solved with more effective communication. From this information provided by the third-party, you can enhance your own communication skills for more optimized outreach and development of a better strategy. 

When you’re identifying opportunities for professional development, be sure to consider both your own weaknesses and the optimization opportunities for your organization as a whole. 

3. Define Your Professional Goals

Considering your opportunities for improvement is key for improvement, but you should also make sure that you have a goal for the development in those skills. Without a concrete goal in mind, it’s very easy to let your development skills (and aspirations) slip by. This means that you’ll need to take two important steps after you’ve identified opportunities: 

  1. Define your professional goals. 
  2. Apply the skills on your list to these goals. 

Learning for the sake of learning is fine, but it’s not necessarily motivating. Having a goal in mind that you want to reach will help you keep up with your learning experience and give you a measure of success. 

Consider discussing these goals with your employer as well. Astron Solutions’ guide to nonprofit HR explains how the human resource department at your organization should help various staff members with their development goals. Plus, they may be able to help you gain experience with projects that provide hands-on experience to achieve these goals. 

For instance, let’s consider Susie. Susie works at an animal shelter as a fundraiser. She recognized that she’s very effective at one-on-one conversations with potential supporters, but struggles when addressing a group. As one of her goals is to take a leadership role on the fundraising team. However, a key responsibility of this role is to present at the annual fundraiser. Therefore, Susie decides that she needs to focus on her public speaking skills. 

The next step for Susie is to actually learn public speaking skills and find opportunities to practice it. 

4. Learn and Practice New Skills

Once you have committed to learning, decided which skills you need help with, and determined how those skills will help advance your career, it’ll be time for you to actually start the learning process.

The next step is investing in educational opportunities that can help hone the skill you’re excited to learn. 

One of the takeaways from the coronavirus pandemic is the importance of convenience and online opportunities. When it comes to educational opportunities, this means that you’ll likely find success with a number of online courses and resources. 

Online courses are our favorite option. They offer a guided experience that covers individual subjects in-depth. The only tricky thing about these resources is that you’ll need to choose the course that best fits your needs. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance guide on nonprofit courses explains that before choosing a course you’ll need to analyze criteria such as: 

  • Open-source vs. paid content. Open-source content can be a tempting option, but it’s important to be sure that the content is comprehensive (it’s often not). Paid options can quickly become expensive, however. Therefore, we recommend looking for subscription-based content. That way, you have access to a number of courses for a single, inexpensive fee. 
  • Subject matter available. Be sure whatever platform you invest in offers the subject matter that’s most important to you. You’ve already defined the skills that you want to learn, so be sure you’ll be able to learn them! You may also consider the future and take note if the platform offers courses about other skills that you’d like to learn later on. 
  • Convenience and flexibility. One of the reasons online courses are so attractive is because they allow learners to learn at their own pace, providing convenience and flexibility to the program. Whatever platform you choose shouldn’t impede on this benefit. 

Of course, online courses aren’t the only platform option for you to learn new skills. You may also consider other resources such as: 

  • Academic books
  • Online journals
  • Trusted blogs
  • Service learning

Once you’ve gained a foundational understanding of the skill that you want to develop, it’ll be time to put that skill into practice. Ask the leaders at your organization if they know of any volunteer opportunities or employee responsibilities that will allow you to practice what you’ve learned. 

For example, let’s return to Susie. After she read a book on public speaking and took an online course on nonprofit communications, she might ask her manager if they’d be comfortable with her taking over the leadership of certain meetings at the organization so that she can practice presenting in front of a small group of trusted peers.

If we deny opportunities for learning, we’re not only going to inhibit our own growth, but also fall behind the times. Learning is the cornerstone of professional development and becoming a more effective and efficient mission leader.

When you commit yourself to learning and take the necessary steps to discover what you need to learn and how you’ll learn it, you’ll be well on your way to enhancing your career. Good luck! 

Susan Tomlinson Schmidt has dedicated her life to serving others through more than 25 years advancing the missions of social-impact organizations. Currently, Schmidt is the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance president, an organization that develops talent for the nonprofit workforce. 

She received her master’s in public administration from the University of Memphis and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional. Schmidt and her husband, David, a professional chef, have two sons, Patrick and Walker. They live in Leawood, Kansas.

Nonprofit Professional Development: 4 Tips to Get Started