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Encouraging staff to make the most of development opportunities

Many small nonprofits struggle to provide staff development opportunities due to time and budget constraints. Investing in your staff, however, doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. Here's how to get started.

Why is staff development important?

Training your staff benefits everyone. Your employees will learn, grow, test themselves, develop new skills — and become more capable members of your team. Staff development supports succession planning efforts. Research also suggests that staff development improves:

  • Employee productivity
  • Employee retention
  • Employee recruitment

What are the various levels of staff development programs?

Staff development programs can typically be divided into one of four levels, including:

  • On-the-job training: unstructured and informal
  • Training and development: professionally delivered
  • Talent and performance training: included in a career development program
  • Capability development: focused on improving the organization's capabilities and culture

Small organizations tend to focus on on-the-job training and professionally delivered training and development.

What are some best practices for creating a staff development program?

Creating a staff development program that works for your organization requires some reflection on what results you're hoping for and how you're most likely to get them. Staff development also isn't a one-time event. To continue your staff's growth, training and coaching must be ongoing. Keep in mind that those doing the coaching will likely need to be trained, too.

To start a staff development program at your nonprofit, consider these best practices:

  • Train to support your goals and work processes. Break down your organization's overall goals into small, attainable goals. Training sessions should relate to these goals, as well as to clearly defined job descriptions and work processes.
  • Prioritize training. Create an orientation process for new hires. Make sure your staff has access to job-related information and the tools necessary for them to do their best work.
  • Train to engage. This means varying the types of training you provide. Instructor-led training works for teaching some skills, but providing ongoing coaching and assigning new projects or work challenges can also be effective — especially in the case of leadership development. More important, look for ways to make training interesting and fun.
  • Reward learning. Not every staff member is going to value learning. Show your staff that training pays off by being enthusiastic about training opportunities, reviewing their efforts in annual appraisals and encouraging teamwork that allows staff members to learn from each other.
  • Create career paths and ladders. Provide job enhancement opportunities. Encourage employees to enhance current skills and knowledge in preparation for promotions and/or transfers to new or different positions.
  • Get social. Foster closer colleague connections and employee engagement — which ultimately supports staff development — through activities such as potlucks with recipe cook-offs, holiday cookie exchanges, theme-inspired costume contests, pet photo contests and so on.

What are some cost-effective ways to begin a staff development program?

On-the-job training can be a great first step for small nonprofits looking to start a staff development program. Not only does this approach come without direct expense, it also helps foster teamwork. Opportunities that might work for your nonprofit include:

  • Team leadership. Put a staff member in charge of organizing a meeting or event. Assign them junior staff or interns to train and manage. Have staff members interested in leadership shadow an executive for a day.
  • Communication. Ask a staff member to present at a monthly meeting, prepare written materials for an internal newsletter or help write a senior executive's speech.
  • External relations. Have a staff member accompany an executive on an outreach or sales meeting. Include junior staff at meetings with donors or community leaders. Ask a staff member to speak on behalf of your organization at a conference or serve on the board of another nonprofit.
  • Fundraising. Ask junior staff to help with proposal writing or involve them in meetings with potential donors. Put staff members in charge of coaching volunteers to assist with an upcoming campaign. Have a staff member develop a plan for showing appreciation for donors and volunteers.
  • Financial. Have staff members participate in your budget process or develop a budget for grants or their own departments. Have a staff member shadow someone from your finance department on a project.
  • Project management. Ask staff members to take over a project, such as overhauling your organization's website or overseeing a community event sponsored by your nonprofit.

You might also consider a shared training arrangement with another nonprofit. Let's say you have a staff member who has an expertise in outcomes, while a neighboring nonprofit has a staff member who specializes in grant writing. Your outcomes expert could provide outcomes training to the other organization, in exchange for the grant writer providing grant development tips to your organization.

Other cost effective training opportunities include webinars, online training courses and streaming discussions among nonprofit professionals. Some organizations also provide free archives of their webinars and post transcripts of previous online discussions. Better yet, ask staff members what type of training is needed most and then search for opportunities focused on those areas.

What are some ways to encourage staff to make the most of development opportunities?

Once staff members have participated in a development opportunity, help them implement their new knowledge. Ask staff members to present a summary of what they learned and then look for practical applications as a team. Your organization could end up with valuable information about anything from how to use a new software tool to tips on improving communication with stakeholders.

Don't put off staff development. Giving your employees opportunities to learn and grow isn't as hard as you might think. The sooner you begin, the sooner your organization will reap the benefits.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.




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