The reputation that training has isn’t good.
On one hand, staff and volunteer training are right up there with a political junket—a work trip that seems more like a vacation to everyone else who’s left behind.
On the other hand, training can seem painful—watching hours of video or sitting in a succession of windowless ballrooms, watching a parade of talking heads drone on about an arcane nuance of an enigmatic topic.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With just a few changes, you can make training a transformative experience that your staff and volunteers will look forward to and support each other in doing it.
Here are five ways to optimize your own nonprofit’s training practices:
1. Set specific goals
Training used to be treated like a luxury—an extra that you could parse out to well-behaved staff and not worry about it beyond the days they would take away from the office.
Not anymore. Now, training is an important part of keeping your entire team up to speed and driving your mission forward in the most effective way possible.
Start with training goals by tying them into the overall objectives of the organization. If your goal is to increase your total number of clients, everyone should have specialized training in their own role. Admins need training on how to greet visitors. Program staff need training on recognizing referral opportunities. Executive staff need training on networking. Volunteers need training on how to talk about your organization to their friends and families. In short, you need a strategic training plan for every member of your team regardless of how “big” a role they play.
That leads us to personal training goals. Every staff person and volunteer needs training goals that integrate into your strategic training plan. This goal may be expressed in the number of hours spent on training, how many training sessions are attended, and most importantly, the relevancy of the training to the mission of your organization and their function within that mission.
2. Create rewards
Token rewards that an individual can display to show off their personal and professional development are long-held traditions in any number of industries. The modern manifestation that comes to mind is the cloth badges that Scouts earn. Youth who study, practice, and pass a test in a specific skill earn a badge to display. It’s remarkably motivating, and a great way to encourage individuals to pursue new skills and practices.
While you might think that earning a cloth badge based on a checklist of requirements is quaint and antiquated, it's actually just transforming into a new, tech-based practice. A direct descendant of physical badges are the virtual rewards that electronic learning management systems give out today for the accomplishment of predetermined tasks. Millions of businesses worldwide use the concept as part of their in-house professional development programs—nonprofit organizations included.
So, creating a system of rewards, even those that you think are nominal, will motivate many of your staff to accomplish their training. You might even consider the earning of specific rewards as part of your annual performance review process.
3. Leverage short-form content
Educational opportunities are often hour-long sessions. Are we mimicking formal education with hour-long class periods? Maybe. Hardly anyone questions it—which is probably why every conference is looking for “dynamic” speakers. Instinctively, they know that session times are too long!
The best professional development is taken in small bites. Television programmers seem to have figured this out before the scientists confirmed it: about 20 to 25 minutes of content in every 30-minute block seems ideal.
It's hard to discern cause or effect, whether television adapted to humans or as humans we adapted to television, but professional development can take a lesson from the results. Keep your content less than 20 minutes for any single educational session. That’s good for video or podcast training, and the right place to break or shift your mode of content delivery for live seminars.
4. Incorporate multi-channel methods
A rose by any other name is still a rose. Well, learning, however you do it, is still learning.
One of the major functions of professional development is simply to get information into the brain of the person experiencing the program. Who says this has to happen one single way, such as through a lecture or a video?
You probably know that humans learn in a variety of methods, such as by their hands, with their ears, and through their eyes. Each of us can learn in any of these methods but most have a preferred intake mode that is most efficient for them—such as reading, video, podcasts, live instruction. By providing training opportunities that use a variety of modes, you can keep your learner more engaged. If it’s a group training, be sure to mix up the modes so that everyone has an opportunity to learn in the way that best suits their style.
This isn't as hard as you might think. Consider that you could first create a video on a topic, such as “making a personal gift solicitation.” Then:
- Translate the video and into an audio file so that some could listen to it as a podcast.
- Transcribe that audio to a document that can be read—even while the learner is watching the video or listening to the podcast.
- Develop a worksheet so that your hands-on learners can better engage with the material as a supplemental resource.
Then bring everyone together, pair them up, provide them with a scenario and let them practice gift solicitation on each other, thus reinforcing the information they took in with their preferred method. When you allow your staff to tailor their training resources to their own learning styles and preferences, you ensure that they absorb more of the information than they might if you had chosen to stick with a single mode of delivery.
5. Establish drip content strategies
Another rising education tactic is leveraging the power of drip content. Drip content is parsing out your training into short, consistent bursts of material over a period of time. For example, rather than sitting down in front of a two-hour nonprofit webinar, learners can take in the same information in 10-minute videos each morning for two weeks.
This is a very powerful learning technique. Think of the human brain as a jug that you would fill with a funnel. When you pour in too much water, too fast, the water overflows the wide end of the funnel. The overspill is lost forever.
Similarly, if you hit anybody with too much information at once, they only catch a small percentage of it. The rest, like the water overflowing, will never get in their brain. Combat this by giving them small portions of information on a consistent basis. Through an email “drip” each morning containing a video or podcast link, much more information gets to and is absorbed by the learner’s brain. And the more information that is absorbed, the bigger the impact the training will have on your mission.
The final litmus test is whether your training is getting results. By setting goals, instating a rewards system, and modifying how you present your content, you can start seeing the results of your efforts in no time.
Getting your staff to positively anticipate training is a significant step to moving your mission forward. It starts with expectations, goals, and rewards—and carries on with your methods in content length, variety of approaches, and delivery.
In the end, your staff and volunteers will be happier with what they learned. Your clients will be happier to work with them. Your community, and donors, we'll see that your well-trained staff accomplishes your mission efficiently and effectively. It’s a major win for everyone involved.