How to ensure your nonprofit advances employee development

Nov 28, 2017 · 6 min read
Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

This article was written by featured writer Janice Chan

When I was a grant writer, there was always money for programs. Not in the sense that people were walking up to you and handing you money, but in that you could always apply for funding for programming. Everyone wants to feel like they’re helping the kids and feeding the hungry or handing out bed nets. Ask any fundraiser or nonprofit marketer. How many times have you heard that “people give to people”?

Aren’t we (nonprofit professionals) people, too? Haven’t we seen how taking care of your people is the best way to make sure your customers are happy? And yet, when it comes to compensation and investing in the people working to advance the mission, that’s…well, that’s fine. But I am very committed to the cause so I want 100% of my gift to go to the beneficiaries.

Listen, donors aren’t interested in contributing to insurance or making sure our online giving page is PCI-compliant either — but those are costs of doing business. So is professional development.

As a society, we marvel at martyrs. We praise the scrappy do-gooders doing so much with so little. There is this myth that working at a nonprofit is a calling. People work at nonprofits for a wide range of reasons — including because it’s a day job. Besides the fact that emotional rewards don’t pay student loans, the underlying assumption here is that nonprofit work is solely volunteer based and not a profession.

Professionals advance their careers. Volunteers serve. Professionals are fairly compensated for their expertise, experience, and ability to execute. Volunteers get rewarded by the warm fuzzies. And thanked, yes, remember to thank them with lunch. Professionals need employee development — both to show them that we’re willing to invest in them, and so that our organization can remain competitive. Volunteers aren’t interested in growth opportunities. Otherwise, they would have gone corporate and be working for money. Obviously.

And so fundraising is derided as schmoozing — definitely not data-driven nor a skill. Program staff are bleeding hearts. Who is even running this place?! Nonprofits would benefit from professional (ahem, business) leadership.

It’s bull.

Anyone who has ever spent any portion of their career in the nonprofit sector can affirm that we, too, in addition to wanting purposeful work, want to do our jobs as effectively as we can, want to grow, and want to provide for ourselves and our families. (And psst, volunteers want to grow, too!)

The worst part about treating professional development for nonprofit employees as a luxury is that it undermines the fact that we are professionals.

One more time with feeling: We are professionals.

We have professional organizations, publications, conferences, and continuing education. We are interested in building our skills, our professional networks, and our capacity to move the ball across the goal line. All humans want to connect. Nobody wants to remain stagnant. Employee development is known to aid with retention and attracting talent in all types of organizations.

Nonprofit community: We know better, so let’s do better in 2018 — by ourselves and by each other.

First, include professional development in the budget for your employees. Make cutting it an active choice. If you’re interacting with funders, start having the conversation about professional development.

If you’re an employee, ask your organization for professional development if you haven’t already. If you already have, keep asking.

There are an increasing number of options even if you have to start small. There are MOOCs, webinars, and other online professional courses for you to take at your convenience. A subscription may not be that expensive if it’s used by the entire organization — whether it’s for online courses or journals and publications. If you have the budget, conferences, workshops, and classes are great — both in the official sessions and in all the conversations you can have with peers.

Let us not forget about informal learning opportunities. One of the greatest opportunities for professional development I’ve had so far is through an online community of practice. As the only donor database manager in my organization at the time, and being new to data management, I often felt like an island. But here was this community of people who understood my challenges and who could offer advice! Still, it can’t compare to what I’ve gained from volunteering as an organizer.

As an organizer, I began to engage with the community in a whole new way, while strengthening my leadership muscles. It has also led to other opportunities for professional development — like teaching a class and presenting at a conference.

Serving on a board for another organization is both a great opportunity for leadership as well as professional development. Lower on the commitment scale, there are free meetups or local chapters of professional organizations like the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. Within your organization, an informal learning opportunity could be an article club. (Kind of like book club, but condensed.)

Speaking of discussing things we’ve read and learned, there’s no point to learning or growing if it can’t be applied. After one conference, I was catching up with another attendee about some ideas we had discussed. He’d gone back to his organization energized and excited. When he attempted to share the new ideas with his manager, the response he got was, “That’s nice. Would you get back to work already?”

Employee development is not separate from work; it is an essential part of doing the work. Sometimes professional development can even take the form of work within your organization — through stretch or cross-department projects, speaking opportunities, shadowing someone, or even things like the chance to get coffee with the executive director.

Not everything can be applied immediately, but it can be shared. Even as the only person in my role, I’ve always tried to share notes that I felt would be relevant to the rest of the team. Doing so reinforces what I’ve learned. It’s also cheaper than sending the whole team.

However, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things without managers and organizations that viewed employee development as essential. Whether it was built into annual goal-setting and the budget, or managers who encouraged me to seek out learning opportunities and were excited when I came back with new ideas — I benefited from professional development because it was supported.

Professional development needs to be budgeted for, not only financially but in terms of time as well. Supporting employee development (and not just paying lip service) means offering those opportunities to every team member, allocating work hours for this purpose, and helping people find ways to apply what they’ve learned. See potential in someone, even if they haven’t asked? Give them the push they need. When people grow, treat them as the professional they are today, not the entry level staffer they were when you met them.

If it’s not a part of the culture where you are, then start by making it a part of how you operate as a professional. Didn’t get asked to share what you learned? Share it anyway. If it resonated with you, chances are someone is going to find it interesting or useful or inspiring.

Nonprofit professionals are professionals. Professionals do the work. Professionals ask for what we need to get the job done right.

The Nonprofit Revolution

Nonprofits are badass, and so are the people working at…

The Nonprofit Revolution

Nonprofits are badass, and so are the people working at them. We're gathering stories covering real and authentic perspectives in the nonprofit sector. Join the revolution at


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The Nonprofit Revolution

Nonprofits are badass, and so are the people working at them. We're gathering stories covering real and authentic perspectives in the nonprofit sector. Join the revolution at

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