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e-learning growth boosts nonprofits’ capacity

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By Rosie Molinary

With the technology boom has come a new model for education at many nonprofits.

Once the purview of government and academia, e-learning technology is becoming a viable tool for nonprofits aiming to offer more dynamic, efficient, and cost-effective programs and trainings.

The term is a catch-all phrase that encompasses multiple learning opportunities offered through technologies ranging from CD-Rom tutorials to web-based trainings.

“At their core, most nonprofits are about education,” says Jeff Cobb, vice president of business development at LearnSomething, an e-learning service provider in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“They need to teach something, change people’s behaviors or give people skills they did not have before,” he says. “Given the ability of e-learning to reach people anywhere and any time, it really is a tremendous tool to help nonprofits realize their mission.”

More than half of nonprofits and associations are using e-learning, most often for professional development and affiliate training, according to a recent survey by the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, or N-TEN, and LearnSomething and its Isoph division.

When asked why they are trending towards e-learning, many organizations cite cost savings and opportunities to generate revenue.

Larger nonprofits were the first to embrace e-learning.

LearnSomething’s Isoph division has worked with organizations like the Red Cross, National Wildlife Federation, Planned Parenthood and the Second Harvest Food Bank to review goals, identify appropriate e-learning platforms, create supporting curricula, and implement these e-learning solutions.

The group also has developed 20 courses for librarians, in conjunction with the Web Junction project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The program is based on the realization that libraries are now public access centers,” says Cobb. “Librarians aren’t necessarily trained to support that type of activity.  It offers an online location where librarians can gain technology information.”

Isoph also worked with the National Wildlife Federation to develop a public-education tool, says Cobb, to help individuals make their own backyards havens for animals.

While larger organizations have a headstart on e-learning, the 2006 survey responses indicate a rise of 17 percent in e-learning course development by nonprofits whose budgets range between $500,000 and $2 million.

That growth is driven in part by the increasing ease of implementing e-learning solutions, coupled with decreasing costs.

The Chapel Hill Training Outreach Project, based in North Carolina, is one of those smaller nonprofits and hopes to launch an e-learning initiative in July 2007.

The effort would help family resource centers and other social organizations develop a logic model, or visual representation, for their programs showing the relationship among a program’s goals, resources, activities, services and intended outcomes.

Because they have a public constituency, implementation of the program has met with some challenges since not all of their users have the same access to or experience with technology.

But as each generation further develops their comfort with technology, Mike Mathers, executive director of the Chapel Hill Training Outreach Project, believes e-learning will become even more vital for nonprofits.

“We think it is the wave of the future,” he says.  “It is very valuable and cost-effective and shall be really perfect one day.  I can imagine it being a vital part of our training efforts.”

Jeff Cobb agrees, pointing to a program the group developed for Planned Parenthood that allows the organization to offer advocacy-skills training across the country with a high degree of consistency.

“It also enables them to reach more people with their message in an educational and measurable way,” says Cobb.  “E-learning really allows you to capture people’s attention and deliver something of value.”

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