Last week I wrote about interns and students research projects. I highlighted that if you are lucky enough to be hosting interns and students you must support them in their learning goals. What I did not mention is that of course you must facilitate and support learning for everyone on your team, including yourself, all the time. But how to facilitate learning when you are a small nonprofit working with a shoestring budget? There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this. But here are some ideas that may help you organize this better for your team.
First of all, I think I must clarify what I mean by learning. Most often, people think of formal learning: classroom-based learning offered by a school, university or training institute. People forget that a lot of learning is being done differently: through own research and figuring things out, through trial and error and through learning from peers. In other words, there is also informal learning, experiential learning and social learning. These non-formal learning processes happen all the time at your workplace. (For more inspiration you can view Jane Hart’s presentation about workplace learning here). But as a leader you can unleash the power of non-formal learning if you make explicit space for it.
Set the stage
The first step, as always, is to make a plan. And this starts, as always, with looking at the horizon. What is your goal in terms of learning in your organization? What do you want to achieve? Why is learning important to you? Discuss with your team, both as a team and individually, what learning goals people have for themselves. Both in light of their work and more generally. After all, given limited possibilities for a pay raise or a promotion, self-development is probably the biggest perk you can offer your staff.
Look at the learning goals and see what you can do to meet them. Are there people on the team with knowledge and skills that others are keen to learn? Are there several team members with a shared interest in learning something specific? In other words, can you set up an in-house process led by staff or hire one external trainer to train several team members at the same time? Do you know other organizations facing similar needs and can you organize something together with them?
Here comes one of the challenges regarding learning. Not the only challenge and in my view not the most important one. But nevertheless, a challenge that is holding many organizations back when it comes to facilitating learning. Some organizations are able to acquire funding to cover costs of formal trainings and courses for their staff. Some organizations are cleverly combining trainings for their target group with a learning process for some of their staff. Others manage to save money from unearmarked donations or from the overhead contribution of fees to cover training and courses.
Another challenge is availability. How to make time for learning; to take part in a training or course, to do the homework, to reflect, to practise …? How can this fit into a busy schedule that is often overruled by things happening in the moment? In my experience this is most often a reason not to follow through with learning in a training or course.
Embed learning in your workplace
What I have learned over the years is that it is important to make learning a regular part of the job. This means you need to allocate time to this regularly, for everyone on your team. Including yourself. It means you need to create a culture of learning in your organization. A culture in which people are willing to learn from their colleagues as well as willing to help colleagues learn. A culture in which people are given opportunities that will stretch their abilities and will foster learning new skills and knowledge. And a culture in which learning on the job from the job is part and parcel of getting things done. Where it is safe to jointly reflect on the work, both on the results and on the process through which these were achieved. And where this kind of conversation is part of regular meetings, and not limited to a few people evaluating one specific event.
A learning organization
In a learning organization teams reserve time to reflect on what was done and how, with the aim of extracting best practices and lessons learned from this. Time is reserved for documenting steps taken, successes and tips. There is time to look into things, to read up on a topic. There is space for piloting new approaches and testing new ideas. But above all, there is space to celebrate anything and everything that did not go as planned for the learning value provided.
To learn is to succeed
Facilitating such processes and building a true learning organization is not always easy, Because there are times when you may not want to celebrate a mistake, times when you maybe want to scream out loud instead of explaining to your stakeholders that you and the team are learning. Times when it may feel safer to have a team dedicated to topics like learning, knowledge, innovation and quality rather than giving space to everyone for dabbling in these things.
And I believe that the only way to being a professional nonprofit with reliably high-quality delivery is to allow everyone on your team to be actively engaged with learning, innovating and growing.
And if you can learn how to make that possible, you will be a great leader for your team and community.
Want to know more and ask questions?
Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.