Nonprofits as Learning Organizations: 10 Best Practices

Matt Hugg

October 6, 2020

About the Author

Matt Hugg

Matt is the founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work. He has decades of experience as a nonprofit professional, academic, and author. 

Thanks to Matt Hugg for this wonderful guest post. We’re happy to tell you our first-ever on-demand program, Fundraising in a Crisis 2020, is now available on Matt’s comprehensive platform.

How can you tell if you’re not a “learning” nonprofit?

People just do their jobs.

If your nonprofit staff, volunteers and board members aren’t talking over coffee about a new way they learned to carry out a mission task… if they aren’t emailing each other a video link on a new technique for next month’s social media fundraising campaign… if you don’t have someone pushing for budget money to carry out a marketing technique they learned about in a book they read, you don’t have a learning nonprofit. Everyone’s just doing their jobs. While that may seem like heaven today, it will be a different place when you run out of ideas for tomorrow.

A learning nonprofit is about ideas.

Let’s face it. Not every idea is good, let alone affordable. But if you don’t have people supporting your mission – paid and volunteer – who generate ideas on better program delivery, more efficient revenue generation, improved communication with the public, clients and donors, you won’t be around very long, and neither will they.

And let’s face it, in the middle of a pandemic, with an unstable economy and social issues swirling about, you need all of the ideas you can get.

Besides, it’s no secret that staff, board members and volunteers who learn stay with you longer. Why? They get value out of working for the mission of a learning nonprofit. You meet their needs through ongoing personal growth and mental stimulation, and in return, they fulfill your mission’s needs through better services and increased income.

Pandemic or not, it’s a nice win/win.

But how do you build that long-term learning culture? Here are ten things you can do to get started.

1. Set an example.

This is first for a reason. If you just read this point, and do it, you’ve already taken a major step in building your nonprofit learning culture. We see it in all parts of our lives. Nothing works better to get something going than a leader who models important behavior. Nonprofit professional development is no different. Doing what you expect others to do shows that you are actively searching for improvement in yourself and your organization, and that you’re open to new ideas to get there.

2. Ask about what they learned.

Take an interest in whatever someone did, whether that’s reading a book, going to a conference, or attending a webinar. Ask what they got out of it. Even better? Use what they told you and make whatever you’re doing better. And here’s the most important part: give them credit! When the boss asks you how you came up with that great idea for your clients, saying “I was talking to Bob about the webinar he did, and it crossed my mind that…” is a great way to show the value of a learning culture.

3. Include all levels of staff in learning.

Training and education isn’t just for the college educated “professionals” in your organization, or the ones who need it to keep up their credentials so you pass the next state inspection. Lower wage workers (and volunteers) are usually the last ones in line for professional development. That’s a big mistake!

Imagine that you’re an environmental organization with a property that gets thousands of visitors annually. A maintenance worker could encounter hundreds of guests each month while simply doing their job. Poor education on your mission, lack of customer service training, or their inability to use the latest technology to do their work can lead to a lot of bad Facebook reviews – and cost you a lot more than the webinar they should see.

4. See that learning occurs throughout your organization.

Bringing staff to the forefront of learning is relatively easy when compared to connecting your board and volunteers to the tap. They claim that they don’t need it (after all, how hard can your mission be?), they don’t have time (but they make plenty of time for golf), they only work for your mission once in a while (so, why are they involved at all?). Yet when volunteers and board members get education and training, they’re much happier, more confident in their work with you, and spend more time doing it.

You can take a lot of approaches, but I’ve seen these work. Set standards. “Sorry, but nobody can work with our clients without completing this training program.” You’d be surprised at how many people will complete the training. Better yet, fool ‘em with fun. At your next board meeting, you can have a demonstration of your mission. For example, invite one of your student musicians to play before the meeting starts. Introduce your student, with their story and ambitions. It was fun, and your team learned about your organization in a way that you could never tell them.

5. Integrate learning.

All too often what we focus on in nonprofit professional development is siloed into our specialty. Fundraisers learn about fundraising. Program staff learn about your programs. Human Resources people learn about human resources. It would be great to find training that crossed over those boundaries. Good luck.

No, you need to do it yourself. Be intentional about bringing people together in your organization so they can learn from each other. The benefits will start with appreciation for each other’s work. It will get better when they start asking each other about their respective tasks. You’ll see a real value when staff from one department look to another for ideas on how to improve.

6. Go with their interests.

Good staff and volunteers want to advance. They want to learn their jobs better, and even learn someone else’s job, even if they may never hold that other job. Encourage curiosity. You may not see the use of an accountant wanting to learn about fundraising, so ask. The answer could be as basic as “I was curious” or as thoughtful as “I want to see how we can integrate our data systems more efficiently.” Whether now or later, that bit of exploration can go a long way in helping your nonprofit and your mission.

7. Don’t expect miracles.

A one-hour webinar does not an expert make. Learning takes time. It’s cumulative. Nobody learns at the same rate. If someone went to a day-long conference on nonprofit human resources, they’re not coming away as a nonprofit human resource expert. Encourage people to chart a path toward expertise, and if they’re already an expert, chart a path toward leading others to expertise.

8. Embrace all ways of learning.

An out-of-town conference is only one way to learn. Today there are a lot more approaches to connect with the important information to make your mission prosper, especially online. In fact, online education, whether it’s a quick five-minute video, a 30-minute podcast, or a fully accredited multi-week academic course, is quickly becoming the standard. It will save you money, too, in the travel, food, and lodging you’d spend if that same material was presented in person.

9. Recognize learning.

Showing off achievement can be motivating for a lot of people. That’s why a lot of online environments focus on “badges.” But this isn’t new. Baden-Powell introduced it to Scouting more than 100 years ago, and he’s certain to have borrowed it from someone else. Have you been to a Home Depot or Starbucks and looked at an associate’s apron? Achievement pins abound! Whether you give little cloth disks, a metal pin, or a cute icon on their personnel profile, a little recognition can go a long way to building a learning culture in your nonprofit.

10. Budget for learning.

This is the last point because you may think it’s the most difficult — and I didn’t want to scare you away! There’s no doubt that you have tremendous budget pressures. Budgeting for something as long term and ephemeral as professional development may look like a waste on your 990. It’s simply not true. There’s all sorts of studies and books (My favorite? Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink) that shows that a learning employee is a happy employee.

Happy employees stay longer. The longer an employee stays, the less costs you put into searching for and training someone new. And that’s only part of the financial benefit. Staff and volunteers who learn the latest best practices make your entire organization more efficient and market for you free by word-of-mouth. Taken together, they help you to serve more people at a lower cost.

One more thing — we’ll call it a “bonus hint.” Encourage teaching. Even the newest employee or volunteer has something to share with your nonprofit. In fact, some of the greatest ideas come from people who are new to a discipline. They haven’t been entrenched with the processes and traditions, and they bring new perspectives from past, unrelated work. Regardless, newbie or veteran, nothing gets someone to learn more than having to teach someone else. Give everyone an opportunity to teach, even if they’re reluctant. It’s a real growth experience.

So how do you know whether you’re succeeding? Listen. The first sign of a learning organization is when staff talk to each other about what the other learned. Do you hear these conversations in the halls (or the virtual meetings)? Do they approach you with ideas based on things they read or saw in their professional development? Better yet, did you hear of someone’s professional development experience second hand? That’s telling you that others are paying attention, too, and that you’re on your way to building your learning nonprofit.

But that’s not the most important sign. Your recruiting budget will shrink as your people stay longer. The longer your income-generating staff stay, the better relationships you’ll build with funders – and the more money you’ll get. The longer your program staff stays, the more efficient your program delivery will become and the less money you’ll spend. And for both income and programming, you’ll get ideas on how to do things better, which will lower costs and raise revenue.