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3 Mistakes Nonprofit Leaders Make About Training

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Man in a business suit presenting a chart to a group of people sitting at a conference table .
Traditional Training

The Nonprofit Times found that 87% of the best nonprofits to work for provide relevant ongoing training. Most of us recognize the importance of skill-building for our staff, but we don't know how to do it effectively. Read below to learn about common training mistakes and how to overcome them so that you can empower your employees to help your organization soar.

Mistake Number 1: Focusing on One-and-Done

Most organizations settle for one-and-done when they recognize the need for training. One-and-done training is any training where you have an event and a limited time; for example, a one-day staff retreat, a trainer comes in for a day (or two or three), staff attend a workshop or an online event,etc. People attend the event, and then it is done.

What's the problem with one-and-done?

The basic problem is that these events are isolated from the day-to-day work of our staff. In the training industry, there is an oft-quoted figure of 70-20-10 which recognizes that only 10% of our learning comes from these types of one-and-done training events. The remaining 90% is on the job. In short, while staff may enjoy the time away from their desks, overall, there is little effectiveness to one-and-done events. Therefore, if we want to provide education that will help our staff perform better, let's put our time and money into training that will be more effective.

What's the fix for one-and-done?

Fortunately, we know a lot about how people learn and effective ways to improve job performance; chances are, you are already doing some of it. You can create impactful learning culture by practicing the following:

  • Set aside time for learning: give daily or weekly time for staff to explore and learn. When all their time is mandated to be filled with current tasks, staff are unable to find ways to improve how they complete those tasks or develop innovative ideas. Learning time needs to be prioritized and honored for staff to be able to reflect on what they are doing and find ways to innovate.

  • Share and recognize learning: chances are, staff are already learning on their own. Google searches, YouTube, newsletters, podcasts, books, etc., are all sources of learning that staff use independently. Acknowledge these tools and encourage staff to share what they learned. By sharing, staff will solidify their newly learned skills and help others to upskill. Even better, make a common space where staff can share resources with each other, and dedicate time for staff to share what they have learned.

  • Develop personalized learning plans: one of the top reasons staff leave organizations is the lack of growth opportunities. However, growth does not simply mean getting a raise; it means learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities. Take time to discuss learning goals in your one-on-ones with staff, and help them plan to develop skills to achieve their goals. An additional bonus of this approach is that it helps employees feel cared for and thus increases their engagement with your organization.

  • Mentoring and coaching programs: Mentoring and coaching are some of the most impactful learning tools. It is personalized and directly tied to the work the employee is doing. It also helps create a sense of belonging and community. Don't forget to provide your coaches and mentors with educational support to have the most impact.

Mistake Number 2: Focusing on Hard Skills

I have observed that most training time and money in nonprofits appears to be on compliance or specific hard skills. By hard skills, I mean more technical skills like using certain software, building budgets, fundraising techniques, and job-specific skills.

What's the problem with focusing on hard skills

Obviously, people need some technical skills, and most employers hire people based on their technical skills; however, once people are in their positions, the most demanded skills are essential human skills. Harvard Business Review recently reported that only 10% of training delivers the results, but leadership development that was the most effective focused on developing the whole person, NOT technical, hard skills.

The majority of issues with employees arise from poor soft skills. According to Forbes, soft skills are - empathy, emotional intelligence, kindness, mindfulness, adaptability, integrity, optimism, self-motivation, grit, and resilience. These are the skills we need our people to have to be successful in everything they do.

I don't like to call them 'soft' because they are much harder to learn, and 'soft' implies they are not essential. I usually refer to them as human skills because they are essential to our functioning as humans. The focus on human skills will only become more important as AI and automation continue to develop. We must help our humans to excel at what sets us apart.

What's the fix for focusing on hard skills?

Work on developing the whole person using some of these tools:

  • Build emotional intelligence: helping people become aware of recognizing and regulating emotions is probably the most foundational skill. As they develop their EQ (emotional quotient), it will also help them develop skills to work better with their colleagues.

  • 360-degree feedback: these systems give a whole-person approach and help individuals identify areas they need to work on. Individuals receive feedback from supervisors, peers, and direct reports so they have a full picture of their strengths and weaknesses and can identify areas of focus for the above growth plans. See Skillsoft, Reflektive, Cornerstone, WorkDove, and Trakstar for examples.

Mistake Number 3: Assuming they can't afford training

Many nonprofits operate from a scarcity mindset when it comes to training. They think their funds are too limited or their people must spend time on their long lists of tasks rather than on training.

What's the problem with focusing on scarcity

When nonprofits operate from the scarcity mindset and think they can't afford training, they limit themselves and stifle their potential impact. It's been said that you can't afford NOT to prioritize professional development. Professional development will:

  • Increase the capabilities of your entire organization,

  • Increase engagement and retention,

  • Help you work more effectively, and

  • Help your people think more creatively to solve whatever challenges the future brings.

What's the fix for finding funding?

When you see how essential professional development is to the sustainability of your organization, you will find ways to fund it. For example:

  • Start your budget process with professional development: Include professional development as an item with salary. Make it part of your benefits package. Change your mindset to recognize professional development as an essential human resource cost.

  • Include professional development in your funding requests: Most sponsors recognize the importance of professional development, so include it in your requests if you have restricted funding. There are also grants specifically for professional development for nonprofits.

Action Steps

Learning is not optional. Put aside time now for your humans to become better, and your organization will thrive.

Want more?

Visit Lindow Learning to learn how to engage and retain your humans, make a bigger impact on your mission, and see how I can help you develop an impactful learning culture for your organization.


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