How to Train Your Nonprofit Team in 5 Easy & Effective Steps

Nonprofit training is a critical component of running a successful organization. With these five steps, you can create a culture of learning within your team.

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Nonprofits hire for passion.

That’s because passion for your cause is huge. It makes it much easier to move your mission forward when everyone is dedicated to the meaning behind your organization.

But hiring for passion can also lead to problems delivering your mission. Untrained staff can cost your time and money, and even open your organization to legal issues. That’s why the key to successful nonprofit growth is to find the perfect balance between passionate team members and mission experts.

So, how can you turn passion into expertise for your mission and your staff? Effective nonprofit professional development! And lucky for you, we’ve put together five easy steps to help you do so. Let’s jump in!

1. Determine your core mission.

Considering your nonprofit’s mission in the context of staff training is the first, and arguably most important step.

For example, where does training fit in? Do your staff members need more background on the circumstances of your mission? Even if someone has a specialty that may not seem mission-related at first glance, (like fundraising, for instance) are there training programs that combine your mission and their task?

Just like everything in your organization, effective nonprofit training starts with your mission.

The good news is that you don’t have to connect your mission and staff training in a vacuum. You may already have the perfect tool: your case statement.

This statement is the rationale behind your mission, and why people and organizations should give to it. It outlines all of your programming and exactly what you expect your mission to do for those you serve. Doesn’t that sound like a great guide for your training, too?

If your vision statement talks about your much-needed homeless housing program, and you plan to raise money for a new shelter through a major gifts drive, then you need to consider what you’ll need to make this happen. For instance, modern shelter design standards, construction or building rehab management, gift policies and infrastructure, major gift solicitation, and campaign implementation and marketing, just to name a few.

2. Assess your staff and volunteer’s needs.

Your next step is to assess the needs of each person on your team (both paid staff members and volunteers) as it relates to their role within your mission.

What will make them productive on the job? What can help them grow personally? These can be hard-skill based, such as learning the latest software as it relates to their job, or soft-skilled based, like presentation skills or becoming a better networker.

Assessing a person’s training needs should always occur with that person’s active participation. You may have an idea of what you think they need. There’s no problem with that. But imposing that view on your staff member can lead to resentment, wasting time and money, and missing other needs that could be more productive to address.

How do you make that assessment? This is where job descriptions are helpful. Of course, a job description has its roots in your mission, and should clearly link to your case. A good job description details exactly how your staff member fits into your nonprofit structurally (on your organization chart) and programmatically (in supporting your constituents).

Based on your experience and other experts, what is needed for that person to become outstanding in their role? Notice that the standard was not “successful.” You can be average to be successful. Your mission deserves outstanding – so make that your goal for the results of a staff person’s training.

You’re not offering training opportunities to robots. You’re offering it to people, and people are a highly diversified lot. Therefore, it’s essential that you match the training to the person. We’re not talking about hard or soft skills, here. We’re talking about matching their personal traits, like learning style and personality, to the nature of the training they receive.

For example, you may not see the results you want if you push an introvert to go to a major conference that requires a lot of networking. That person may get much more information from a virtual learning opportunity, which can be a more cost-effective solution for your organization in the first place.

Just a few years ago, being able to tailor training opportunities to someone’s personal preferences was very difficult. There just were not that many options outside of live training as part of a crowd. Today and in the future, however, tailoring training to personality style should be a natural part of building each individual’s skills.

But there is plenty more to consider. How about the person’s nonprofit career stage, length of service with your organization, and learning style? Are they a hands-on learner, or do they prefer visual or auditory training?

It’s worth considering what is most effective for the individual, as they’re much more likely to retain information in this way. This means the better they can do their job to fulfill your mission. Overlook this at your own risk!

It’s also worth asking yourself whether the person in question can be a trainer. After all, a great way to build expertise is to teach someone else. Becoming a trainer also gives prestige to your staff person, and builds their leadership skills, all of which can be greatly beneficial to your overall mission.

3. Agree on a plan.

The next step is to agree on a plan. Notice that this is “agree on a plan,” not “provide the learner with a plan.” Unless there is a personnel matter that calls for unilateral action, the creation of an educational training plan should be a participatory step between you and your staff member.

It starts with reviewing the above. What are your goals for training this person in relation to the goals of the organization (as outlined in your mission and case)? Make or save money? Make or save time? Create a new program? Introduce a new method to meet a specific goal? It’s important to be specific.
As you are setting your goals, your staff member must understand where they fit. You might think they already know. They probably do once they think about it. Yet we all get stuck in our bubbles. An accountant who only sees your numbers all day can easily forget that those numbers support a line-staff person, who supports your clients. Connect the dots so you’re both on the same page.

Then it’s time to review the training options. Come with a list of what you think is right for the person, but don’t mandate it. Make your list a starting point, allowing the individual to come up with options of their own based on your discussion.

Next, let them draft a training plan for themselves. Remember that ongoing training is much more effective than a one-and-done event. For example, a series of videos on a topic, a “drip course” where the information is automatically presented to the learner over time, or an academic course where they spend a semester immersed in a subject can be much more effective than a one or two day conference – whether in person or online.

Now, get to it. Once you agree on the learning channel and the schedule, it’s your staff member’s job to make it happen. However, it’s still a good idea to informally touch base and make their training plan part of your ongoing discussion with the individual.

4. Evaluate the results.

Perhaps the least implemented component of any training plan is the evaluation of results. But none of the above really counts unless you figure out whether it worked.

Like any solid evaluation process, it’s critical that you first review the goals. Why did they attend and what were the expectations as a result of their attendance? For example, you can ask the following questions:

  • Were you looking for the individual to get better results from an established process?
  • Should they have learned about a new process?
  • Can they now make or save additional money or time?
  • Are there specific concepts they can now implement for your mission?

You can also ask whether the staff member found that the information was presented in a way they could learn well. Did your staff person find a learning and presentation style that they could relate to? Did the program match what it promised to deliver? If not, you’ll likely want to take an alternative approach for learning goals going forward.

Overall, you want to know the impact this training had on the individual and on your mission as a whole. 

This evaluation shouldn’t be accomplished in a single meeting. Instead, you’ll also want to make observations about behavior changes as a result of the training. It’s easy for your staff member to say they learned something – and maybe they did – but putting it in practice is much harder.

5. Establish a system of continual learning.

When you layer education and training over passion for your mission, you get incredible results. But training is not something you check off and move on. It’s an ongoing process that exists to support your nonprofit’s mission.

The above steps should make it more effective and increasingly meaningful to your organization and your nonprofit’s staff. However, the most powerful organizations are those that emphasize the importance of continuous learning.

The bottom line? You don’t have to hire experts, but you should recruit passionate team members who are willing and excited to put in the work to become experts through your existing ecosystem of nonprofit education. Good luck!

Author bio

Matt Hugg

Matt Hugg is President and Founder of the education and training website, Nonprofit.Courses, an online, on-demand, and growing collection of nearly 1000 courses for nonprofit staff, boards and volunteers from more than 60 Content Experts.

Matt brings his broad and diverse fundraising and nonprofit management experience to you, collected from his experience at several nonprofits and universities, including…

  • The University of the Arts
  • Ursinus College
  • University of Cincinnati
  • Lebanon Valley College
  • Boy Scouts of America

He’s served dozens of nonprofit consulting clients, and a number of business clients with nonprofit interests, including Salesforce, Microsoft Philanthropic and Avanade.

In his work, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Since 2006, Matt has kept up with the latest in nonprofits through his teaching. He has served as adjunct faculty for several graduate programs, including

  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Eastern University
  • Thomas Edison State University of New Jersey
  • and Juniata College.

Matt’s teaching has taken him throughout the United States, and to Europe, Asia and Africa. He is also regularly called upon for guest lectures, most recently at Drexel and Villanova universities.

Matt is the author of the “Guide to Nonprofit Consulting,” “Philander Family Values: Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers” and he contributed marketing chapters to the Health Administration Press’ 2019 book, “The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.” You can find all three titles on Amazon.

Matt has served in several capacities on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and is a regular speaker at AFP and other’s events in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Natural History from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania and was among the first class to receive a master’s degree in Philanthropy and Development, from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, the first program of its kind in the United States.

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