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Effective nonprofit staff training: 5 best practices

July 27, 2021
A senior nonprofit professional walks a new hire through training in a private setting.

Think back to when you started working at your current nonprofit organization. Chances are, you learned how to fulfill most of your work responsibilities through informal, on-the-job training.

However, providing more comprehensive professional development allows your staff to sharpen their fundraising skills, stay on top of trends in the nonprofit sector, and grow in their careers. Training also improves employee retention, saving time, talent, and resources for your organization in the long run.

Use the following five best practices to take your nonprofit staff training to the next level.

1. Plan staff training with your organization’s goals in mind

Dedicated nonprofit staff training has many long-term benefits, but for it to be valuable, your organization needs to budget resources for it. To see a return on your investment, training should align with your organization’s overall goals.

Review your organization’s strategic plan to develop relevant staff training objectives. Let’s say your nonprofit has set a goal to increase donor retention. Consider creating a training objective such as: “All staff members should understand the importance of donor retention and be able to work within their role to keep donors engaged with our purpose.”

2. Write clear nonprofit job descriptions

Nonprofit staff members often wear many hats. For instance, a fundraising event coordinator might also help with marketing, and a major gifts officer likely has to steward current donors while they’re researching new prospects. Staff members could have a variety of shifting responsibilities that all warrant training. 

However, an effective nonprofit job description will list all of the major duties required for the position in concise, specific language. Follow these tips as you develop a description for each role:

  • Use bullet points to allow readers to skim the description and quickly decide whether they want to apply.
  • Introduce each responsibility with an action verb, such as “collaborate” or “communicate,” to make it more concrete.
  • Include details about day-to-day tasks as well as big-picture objectives so applicants get a full picture of the role.
  • Mention any specific technology that applicants should be familiar with, such as your constituent relationship management (CRM) software, website builder, office suite, or donation processor.

Once you fill positions, use each job description to shape that staff member’s training. Ensure employees know how to take care of their everyday responsibilities first, then continue their professional development to fill in any gaps and help them achieve the big-picture goals for their role.

3. Provide comprehensive onboarding for new staff members

When new staff members join your team, devote their first few days or weeks to directly training them for their job. Their onboarding should cover not only how to use your organization’s technology and carry out day-to-day tasks, but also how their role contributes to your organization’s larger purpose. 

Training new hires in this way shows that your organization values them from day one and allows them to connect with senior staff members as they learn how to do their jobs well. Throughout onboarding, always connect new hires’ work back to your purpose so they understand the tangible ways they’re making a difference.

4. Vary your staff training methods

Whether you’re planning onboarding for new hires or continuing professional development for experienced employees, the key is to keep staff engaged. Formal instructor-led training sessions are a strong starting point, but they take time to plan and need to be interactive to hold staff members’ interest.

Combining these sessions with independent professional development opportunities allows for more comprehensive training and gives staff members the opportunity to choose the resources that are most useful for them. Some popular nonprofit professional development resources include:

  • Online courses. Many online course providers offer certifications in essential nonprofit-related skills like fundraising and financial management, which staff members can work towards at their own pace.
  • Conferences. Attending a conference allows employees to network with other nonprofit professionals and learn from leaders in the field. If a staff member is new to conference networking, allow them to shadow an experienced team member as a training experience.
  • Webinars and panels. These sessions provide deep dives into specific nonprofit topics presented in a convenient format.
  • Self-guided training. Listening to nonprofit-specific podcasts or reading articles by thought leaders in the sector can expose your staff to new perspectives that are useful for your whole organization.

Make sure staff members have easy access to all of these resources by compiling information in a shared folder or other digital management system. When you conduct formal training sessions internally, end by suggesting some related resources to reinforce your employees’ learning.

5. Create a culture of learning at your nonprofit

The nonprofit sector is constantly changing, which is why continuous staff training is essential. Show your employees that your organization values learning and career growth by demonstrating its importance firsthand. When your nonprofit’s leaders pursue their own professional development, it sets an example for other employees and helps your organization achieve its goals.

A culture of learning also relies on teamwork. As you recommend professional development resources to your employees, ask them to pass along any helpful resources they’ve found so everyone at your nonprofit can learn from each other.

Final staff training tips

Your nonprofit professional development plan should evolve over time to become more effective. Ask your staff for feedback on your training and take note of trends in the sector. Lastly, remember that your staff training should always align with your organization’s current goals to ensure every aspect of your operations works toward fulfilling your nonprofit’s purpose.

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  • Nonprofits
  • Digital communications & marketing