Planning for Professional Development for NonProfit Staff

Professional Development in NonProfits

Is your community group planning for Professional Development (PD)? In order to create a learning culture across an entire organization, we need to broaden our understanding of “professional” development beyond professional training courses for paid staff. For community groups we like to think that this concept can be expanded on to include everyone involved in the functioning of the organization, from volunteers, board members, to part-time, contractual and full-time staff, whether they work on governance, fundraising, operations, or anything else. And it can also be expanded to include various activities, other than paid courses, that give these people access to ongoing learning opportunities.

Research in Quebec’s community sector, carried out in 2005, indicated that out of the 83% of organizations that have clearly identified working conditions and benefits, only 40% of them plan for training as a part of these benefits (1). This means that two thirds of organizations don’t plan systematically for training for their staff.  We don’t have stats on training for board members or volunteers, but from our experience at COCo, those numbers are even lower. PD is a good candidate for improving paid and unpaid work conditions in an affordable way that will be appreciated by people in our organizations. But it’s more than that: a solid approach to PD is a way to build on your internal resources to improve your overall organizational health. Here are a few thoughts to encourage your organization to plan for PD.

Professional Development and Learning Organizations

Professional Development is the continued acquisition of skills and knowledge in the workplace. Even if informal learning is bound to happen, a lot of learning opportunities have to be planned for: coaching, training, conferences, research time, etc. If you want to make PD a strong priority for your organization, to support people within it with learning opportunities, then as you start planning for it, you should decide on some of the learning goals as well as consider the planning of paid work hours to be allocated to PD if so required.

A motivating goal for Professional Development is to reach for the ideal of a learning organization popularized by Peter Senge, which designates an organization that systematically facilitates the learning activities of its members, and through this constant flow of knowledge, continuously transforms itself. The result of this approach is people that become more and more skilled at learning (acquiring knowledge), teaching (transferring knowledge), and being creative (creating knowledge). Assuring this atmosphere across the entire organization, where learning opportunities for people are supported and aligned with organizational goals, has the potential of generating capacity for growth and change in your organization and improving overall organizational health, which makes it a desirable goal. On the other hand, having no PD commitment at all poses the risk of stagnation in your organization’s overall capacity, sustainability and capacity for change.

Creating opportunities for learning

There are lots of creative ways to develop opportunities for learning within your existing activities. Should we build into job descriptions the requirement to keep up-to-date on key topics we work on, possibly by providing time for doing some of these readings? Can we maintain informal learning circles between colleagues that want to share skills and do cross-training? Can you think of newsletters, bulletins and free online publications to sign up to? There are now university-level courses available for free online, know as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC), which are great for lifelong learning and PD. What about shadowing a colleague to learn how they work? Would you give an introductory training to all new board, staff or volunteers? Perhaps some of your volunteers and board themselves are capable teachers with something valuable to share with others.

At some point down the line, you probably would want to think about budget planning for PD, especially if you find that to attain your PD learning goals, you’ll need some outside resources. Quebec law requires that any employer whose salary expenses exceed 1M$ must invest the equivalent of at least 1% of the salarial mass in training (2). Most organizations aren’t subject to this law, but we suggest this is a good rule of thumb to start with. To get a better idea of what this number could represent, it would be good to connect with consultants or training groups about their fees and how you could potentially benefit from reduced rates as a nonprofit.This doesn’t mean that all PD must be carried out with these outside facilitators or by attending costly conferences, but these options may be required depending on the skills you want to develop, and you should have a budget planned accordingly.

PD can often require a good investment of one or both of the following limited resources: time, and money. However we can definitely think of PD not just as an expense, but with a holistic approach, as a way of thinking about our work that can affect existing activities in the organization, and a way of rediscovering and using the resources that we already have.

(1) : “Pour que travailler dans le communautaire ne rime plus avec misère”, François Aubry, Stéphanie Didier, Lise Gervais, 2005, Prepared by the Relais Femmes & Centre de Formation Populaire, p.26


Here are some further readings:

Viewing: Although he’s talking mostly about fundraising campaigns, some of Dan Pallotta’s thoughts can certainly apply to the resources we invest in PD. Worth a look!