Visionaries

Beth Kanter: A Nonprofit Guru Extraordinaire

| Updated June 18, 2018

Helping nonprofits solve problems with training tools and technologies

Renowned nonprofit blogger, book author and marketing expert Beth Kanter has worked in the nonprofit sector for over three decades, and has supported countless nonprofits with training tools and technology workshops. Here, MissionBox CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks with Beth about her history with passion for nonprofits, and what Beth sees as a vital issue for nonprofits moving forward.

Beth, you have been described as a master trainer, speaker, author and blogger. Tell us more about how you got involved in nonprofit training and professional development.

I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for 35 years and was lucky enough 25 years ago to be in a front row seat at the reveal of a new technology tool: the internet. I quickly realized how nonprofits could leverage technology for socially-driven causes and to further their mission.

My experience as a trainer started with an online networking site for artists back in the 1990s. I would learn the technology from experts and then use that knowledge to train nonprofits, initially artists and arts organizations. Although I don’t consider myself a technology expert, I do understand how technology affects us as people on both the learning side, as well as applying that technology strategically to an organization.

I’ve also worked in philanthropy with organizations. When I’m working with grantmakers, I'm working with a group of their grantees in a pure learning context or coaching, or when I am working within an organization, I'm teaching about how grants work in organizations. And my subject matter areas are digital, networks, data and learning, leadership development, and in my newest book, well-being in the workplace.

How did you come to work so extensively with nonprofits?

I was trained as a classical musician. After graduating with my music degree in classical performance, I unfortunately didn’t get that dream job at the Boston Symphony playing first chair flute. When I knew I wouldn't be performing on stage, I asked a teacher for some advice and he made this offhand comment, “If you can't be on stage, why not work behind the scenes?" I got my first nonprofit job working in the development office at the Boston Symphony.

After several years at the Boston Symphony, I moved on to become the general manager of a small music nonprofit, where in addition to building my fundraising experience, I had the opportunity to learn financial management, strategic planning, marketing and promotion.

I eventually started consulting for other nonprofits and before long, I had worked with several hundred small and mid-sized arts organizations in Massachusetts on all aspects — strategic planning, financial management, marketing, fundraising, board development.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for nonprofits right now?

One of the most pressing issues is professional development and how it happens in nonprofits.

The first challenge is simply a lack of time. Everyone is so busy doing the work, that there’s not enough time to make professional development a priority which is especially true if they have to go out and take a class or a workshop, or even sometimes just to find the time to locate online learning opportunities.

The second challenge is budget. According to research, nonprofits invest in talent, but most of those funds are for salaries and benefits with only a small amount of money dedicated to professional development. And almost everyone knows, when budgets get tight, professional development and training are among the first things that get cut.

A third challenge is program design, especially for emerging leaders and for the distracted and busy learner, who might often be overwhelmed by the options, despite being eager, empowered and collaborative.

How do you help nonprofits to get the learning that they need, when they need it.

We just launched a project called the Emerging Leaders Playbook in collaboration with Third Plateau and with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. It's geared towards providing resources to developing younger leaders in nonprofits.

The design of the Emerging Leaders Playbook is based on micro-lessons and highly useful micro-content. We designed it to be a more informal workplace learning. Half the playbook is curated resources and readings, while the other half is agendas, worksheets and the like. It’s a comprehensive package, so you don’t have to spend the time researching and developing and writing everything up.

The whole toolkit is about bringing that learning and infusing it into your work with three sections. The first is about defining yourself as a leader, what’s your calling, what’s your mission statement, all those emotional intelligence sorts of things. The second is leading others. How you collaborate, listen, give feedback, negotiate, manage up, manage down, those pieces. The third section is organizational culture. It's understanding culture and how to make the shift to a learning culture. It's also learning from mistakes, mentoring and reverse mentoring.

I’m passionate about learning and about self-learning. This project is about how to create a culture of learning in your organization.

What is your most valuable piece of advice that you would give to nonprofits right now?

I would emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself and bringing that culture into the workplace — a culture of well-being, which relates to my most recent book, “Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies For Impact Without Burnout”.

When researching the book, we interviewed hundreds of nonprofit professionals about burnout, self-care and other issues in the workplace. And what struck me the most, and it’s the first sentence in the book, is when someone asked, “Why does something bad have to happen to nonprofit professionals before they start taking care of themselves?” They proceeded to tell a story, which we heard from many people, about somebody working themselves practically to death, eventually winding up in hospital.

So the advice I would give is despite our passion and how much we care about our mission, we must all think carefully about taking care of ourselves as part of doing that work.

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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