People who work in charities are among the noblest people I know. In organizations where I've worked over the years, I've seen staff offer to give up a scheduled cost of living increase to preserve a program position that was slated to be cut. I've seen board members pick up paintbrushes alongside staff to turn a cheap and shabby office into a cheap and cheerful one - at night so that regular operations weren't interrupted. Charity staffers choose tradeoffs like those every day.
But as we grow more used to the habit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the mission, we can make decisions that are unwise, both in the short term and the longer view. We forego not just the latest technology, but the minimum upgrading required for effective communication and information management. That costs the mission money in another way, as we spend precious time getting around tech inadequacies.
Professional development can be another misguided sacrifice. When things get tough and clients increase, it can feel impossible to take an hour, a day or even more away from the mission, and spend some money to get better at what we do. At the organizational level, it seems equally difficult to spare the time or the money for staff training.
Training a smart business decision
That short-sighted attitude does us no favours. As individuals, it's our responsibility to keep our knowledge current and our attitudes fresh. As charity leaders, it's our responsibility to help our people develop to their fullest potential. That's not just a staff perk or a reward for work well done. It's a smart business decision with benefits that reverberate throughout the organization.
Career unsustainable without skill growth
Stop and think about yourself for a moment - something nonprofit staffers don't often do. Imagine that you actually spend your entire career in our sector, not always at the same kind of job or with the same cause, but always with charities who see professional development as an unattainable, optional expense item.
Imagine yourself after five years, a decade, or even more without the opportunities to expand your professional competence. Perhaps you're taxed with more and more work, yet lacking the skills to keep up with the demand. Perhaps you've done a job so well that you've been promoted, with no recognition of the new management competence you'll need. Either way, you're far behind where you should be - and where you deserve to be.
If your organization is so short-sighted as to ignore the need for staff training, find a way to get it on your own. You'll be a more attractive candidate for an organization that values its staff enough to support their professional growth. And you'll have a far better shot at the leadership positions that are opening up as older Boomers retire.
Leaders must promote staff development; boards must help
Now, if you're a manager or leader, think about your organization. Imagine the ripple effect of even one staffer (you, perhaps?) whose skills stay static over the years. Then multiply that stagnation by the number of staff you have.
You're responsible for making sure that doesn't happen to your organization.
We hear little about this issue as board recruitment is discussed. I believe that another quality ought to be added to our list of director requirements: a commitment to the organization's improvement through all means, including staff upgrading. If you can find a board member or two who practice lifelong professional learning in their own careers, so much the better. They'll be healthy models and they can drive the budgets and PD leave policy that will support staff development.
Knowledge is power. That's true for you as an individual wanting to make a high-impact contribution to your charity and grow your own career. It's just as true for the organization that needs to stay sharp in the face of 21st-century challenges.
Take 20 minutes now to decide what sort of training would benefit you and your organization the most this year. Then do what it takes to make it happen.