Young Nonprofit Executives Seek Accessible Training

Jamie Smith isn’t just the executive director of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), she’s a member. When she first joined the network’s Chicago regional office in 2009, she – like many in the sector – found herself underpaid and underdeveloped. Now she’s leading the organization’s mission of connecting young, emerging leaders with resources, professional development and ideas.

Smith knows well the benefits of prestigious career development opportunities. She was a 2013 YNPN Launchpad Fellow and is a 2016-2017 Independent Sector NGen Fellow. She appreciates, however, that such opportunities can be selective — with a limited number of slots to fill — and other developmental opportunities might be costly. Smith has sought to democratize development opportunities. One such way has been through YNPN’s 42 chapters.

It is clear that many nonprofit staff members and managers believe they are on their own when it comes to professional development, seeking out career growth through education and networking.

YNPN’s chapters service more than 50,000 members across the country, the majority of them between the ages of 25 and 35, according to Smith. Many are in the early stages of their careers and are seeking training. Those new to the sector or maybe just new to a particular community are able to join local chapters and seek out training and programming opportunities, most of which are either free or low cost. Each chapter is run by a young professional in the community and serves as a leadership opportunity in and of itself. Many of the chapters are their own 501(c)(3) organizations and leaders, in addition to their day jobs, gain the experience of running their own nonprofit.

What Smith has found is that members generally join to access a particular training but stay as a means of remaining connected with a network of peers tackling the same challenges. She noted that the recent focus on a nonprofit leadership gap, caused by Baby Boomers preparing for retirement, has emphasized a need for soft skills such as leadership and working with people. While those talents are needed, YNPN members have indicated that such trainings are easier and less costly to come by than hard skills such as managing organizational finances. Organizations tend to limit the exposure mid-level employees get to such trainings, but often require such skills in order to move up to senior roles.

YNPN has taken to encouraging members to seek out shadowing and stretch opportunities at their work place to access technical skills. Smith is often asked at conferences and in meetings how best to connect with the incoming Millennial generation in the work place. The answer, she said, is that many young people entering the nonprofit workforce are focused on systemic change, are more diverse than previous generations and are seeking a better work-life balance than their predecessors.

Professional development must also evolve. Accessibility, in time, cost and diversity of recipients, is important. Also vital is being intentional about opportunities for those receiving training and making sure that individuals are able to bring back and use their training within the organization. “In terms of making training more impactful, is an opportunity to use those skills,” Smith said. “People go to these trainings, get skills and can’t use them. It’s a strange approach.” YNPN’s peers in development and mentorship are not waiting around for Millennials to evolve their offerings. Several organizations and networks have similarly made efforts to increase accessibility for workers in the sector in need of career guidance or simply enough information to fill a learning gap or solve a problem.

The Community Resource Exchange (CRE) in New York City, founded in 1979, was originally envisioned as a means for leaders of small organizations to get together and help one another by sharing resources and ideas. Leaders quickly found that nonprofit clients didn’t have time to gather and share, but needed a place to go to for quick answers, according to Katie Leonberger, president and CEO. CRE, in turn, evolved into a nonprofit consulting group, geared to providing assistance in the form of one-on-one consulting, coaching and professional development for nonprofit and government workers.

There is plenty of commonality among those seeking out the exchange’s offerings, according to Leonberger. Financial management and being able to read and base decisions off statements continues to be one of the most sought-after hard skills. Individuals also have a general desire to be more impactful leaders, but require guidance to determine what that means and where they might have gaps.

Finally, there is a value in cohorts and collaborating with peers as a means of both working through individual struggles, as well as gain a sense that one isn’t alone in facing day-to-day pressures. CRE addresses these needs in a variety of ways. It hosts a seven-month leadership caucus each year, supported by scholarships for organizations that can’t afford to send an employee. Government agencies, such as New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development, buy slots and allow for scholarships to be made available, Leonberger said. A future goal is to offer similar scholarships to further CRE management initiatives.

The nonprofit consulting firm also developed peer and action-learning opportunities. Action learning might refer to a session in which groups of nonprofit workers are split up into small groups accompanied by consultant for a structured problem-solving exercise. Each participant will bring a problem they are working on at their organization and one or two will be selected during a three-hour session to hash out their issue with their group. The goal, Leonberger said, is to have group members ask tough, pointed questions to help the member in the spotlight develop an answer. By doing this, members in the center are helped out with their specific concern while fellow participants receive practice in active problem solving, leadership and asking difficult questions.

The active learning process has become popular enough that CRE is receiving requests to hold similar sessions during on-site consulting work at larger organizations. Leonberger believes that similar peer learning and support opportunities will gain traction. “I think it will continue to grow, but the question is how you make it work in busy nonprofit professionals’ lives,” she said. “We’ve found that even though it’s painful for them to peel themselves away, it’s beneficial to get out of the office.”
A similar peer-learning and support endeavor is kicking off this month in Rhode Island. The United Way of Rhode Island, based in Providence, will be launching an 11-session Executive Director Learning Circle in an effort to expand its offerings beyond the organization’s grantees, according to Diana Perdomo, director of grants and strategic initiatives. Slots for the year-long course will run $100. Michael Fournier, a retired nonprofit executive and former chief operating officer for the YMCA of Greater Providence, will facilitate the sessions.

“Even in a small state like Rhode Island, nonprofits don’t speak with other as often as they could,” Perdomo noted. “Funders could do more to share ideas and work and learn from one another.”

The learning circle’s first cohort is expected to be limited to 12 to 15 people in an effort to maintain an intimate feel. Leaders from organizations with revenues of $1 million and less will also be prioritized with plans to add series for both larger and grass-roots organizations.

Topics for the sessions will range from general tips to specific challenges participants face. Fournier said that his style generally entails organic discussion. For instance, as opposed to providing an A-to-Z guide on strategic planning, discussions will focus more on the process around strategic planning, with participants sharing good and bad experiences and reflecting on what is most likely to work for each participant. Tracking and reporting organizational progress will also be a focus of the sessions, according to Fournier.

“That’s, to me, why a learning circle, conversational learning, sharing experiences, is so much more helpful than going online and seeing the top five things you need to protect,” Fournier said. Both Fournier and Perdomo noted that many of the topics that the sessions will cover can be found in online portals and other resources, but opined that the experience isn’t the same as in-person instruction and sharing — something the United Way of Rhode Island will look to expand to other cohorts.

“I think we’re increasingly separated as a community,” Perdomo said. “That dialogue really helps us see and address the issue. … That’s what I see as the key benefit to this. That is what makes us unique.”

That sentiment is not shared by all. The heads of Aspen Leadership Group, which typically focuses on executive searches and consulting, launched its Career Network a few years ago as a means of both guiding those looking to change in their careers as well as provide themselves with better reference on potential candidates. Very often individuals will jump to a job because of relocation, or for a spouse or because of change of leadership at their organization and they’ll land in a poor fit, according to Ron Schiller, founding partner and principal search consultant.

“The basic concept is that we want to encourage people in the field to have more thoughtful approaches to their career and avoid jumping for title and salary,” Schiller said of the network. “What we’re trying to encourage is having a strategic plan for your career.”

Aspen posts information and articles in the network on topics ranging from perfecting cover letters to best practices for board management. The network also provides an extra layer of communication between the firm and candidates to identify skills necessary to land a particular position and means of gaining that experience. Aspen has taken to using the network as a means of connecting candidates with leaders at the types of places that they are interested in working. The leader might not be hiring at that time, but the introduction serves as a means of providing additional information and guidance, Schiller said.

The plan is to expand the network over time to potentially include webinars, tutorials and discussion groups, Schiller said. The goal is not to recreate a formula already in full swing with services such as LinkedIn, but to foster conversations curated by Aspen professionals. “We like the blend of using online dialogue, but introducing the personal relationships and the curation,” Schiller said. “As the network grows, the plan is to keep that blend.”

The Internet is being used as a method of delivering quick answers to nonprofit staffers in need of a particular training or lesson. NonprofitReady.org, an online learning portal supported by the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation, was created several years ago with the goal of providing sector-specific e-learning, downloadable guides and short videos to sector professionals free of charge.

The portal currently consists of more than 200 courses and is visited by about 24,000 active users, according to Rebecca Petersen, director of NonprofitReady.org. Much of her role as director centers involves curating content and creating partnerships with specialists in the sector. Specialists tend to be generous with their time, donating the work to the portal.
Information available on the portal tends to be general in nature, capable of applying to a variety of different organizations. The types of lessons sought tend to be cyclical. For instance, lessons on giving performance reviews tend to be common at the end of the year. Often, users go to the portal with time-specific needs to learn or freshen up on a topic. “In a small nonprofit, one person might wear a lot of hats,” Petersen said. “What we see is a lot of individuals who need to become specialists in the moment.”

More generally, financial management and stability is a topic that is popular throughout the year. Basic essential courses such as governance, marketing, finance, leadership 101, etc., are common for incoming social entrepreneurs who might be looking to start their own nonprofit, according to Petersen.

Petersen found that NonprofitReady.org’s sweet spot tends to be with small- and medium-sized organizations that might not have formal development programs, but are seeking some level of training for employees. In an effort to improve the portal’s offerings, Petersen said that a user survey was conducted in December, an advisory board featuring e-learning experts make recommendations and current trends and events are followed. Potential changes in tax codes with the incoming administration, for instance, is a place resources might be aligned to address. Adjusting content to take deeper dives into social entrepreneurship, financial stability and governance are also planned for 2017.

Petersen said that there is interest in online learning within the sector, but a tendency to stick with more traditional graduate and certificate programs. She predicted that the next two to three years will be an interesting time as awareness around online options increases and users begin to more actively seek such resources out. “That’s going to change in time when there is more ubiquity,” she said. “From a workplace standpoint, people are not only changing jobs over their lifetime, maybe they’re changing careers. Are they going back to school each time?”

If professionals in the sector choose to pursue the more traditional education route, they might find that the realm of academia has adapted over the years. “What do you do when you already have a master’s degree and 15 years of experience,” said Robert Ashcraft, executive director of Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. “You’re not going to take the GRE.”

The Phoenix, Ariz.-based center has full bachelor and masters offerings in subjects such as social entrepreneurship, but has also developed its Nonprofit Management Institute which provides short-course, noncredit offerings both in-person and online. In some cases, an attendee might be seeking out specific knowledge to fill a gap they might have, Ashcraft likening it to perusing the produce aisle at a grocery. Others might take a bundle of training in a specific area to earn a certificate.

This fee-based, pick-and-choose format makes students more like market customers in a lot of ways, Ashcraft said. The typical student and how they get involved is also changing. The center’s work was jumpstarted by resources provided by the Kellogg Foundation and it was for center leaders to proselytize and engage potential students. In recent years, there has been a shift to more and more people and organizations seeking individualized training coming to Lodestar. The market shift has come as certificates become an acknowledged and valued asset, he said.

The center also has adapted. Social impact measurement was not a big focus 15 years ago. Now it’s been added to the curriculum. The rise of hybrid organizations and importance of social media strategy has also influenced offerings, as has accessibility. Ashcraft noted that somebody living on a Navajo reservation in northern Arizona is unlikely to make the commute to Phoenix. Technology, in turn, has allowed the center to scale to students across the country with its Nonprofit Management Institute offerings and even more traditional programs. A full, online master’s degree program launched this past fall, with undergraduate programs also moving toward online, according to Ashcraft.

“People are seeking a purpose mid-career and beyond,” Ashcraft said. “If you care about something, there is a cause to align with and people are looking to adapt their own expertise. Purpose and passion only carry you so far without a skillset and people are yearning for a means of getting involved.”