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Building individual and organizational capacity

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Question:

Given that nonprofits have limited time and resources for professional development, where should their focus be?

Answer:

In thinking about professional development for community-based organizations, I think it is a paired answer: How do I develop the individuals to be effective in their current jobs and in the sector in the future?

And once my organization gets to a certain scale, how can I work toward organizational best practices?

Individual skills-building is where people get tripped up in their professional development planning.

Many organizations calculate a certain amount per employee per year for professional development.

That’s an easy way to think, and it’s a first step to getting professional development in the budget as a standard item, but it’s not necessarily very responsive to people’s current needs or the organization’s goals.

Once you get past that, you realize there has to be some kind of connection between an organization’s strategic plan, its performance, and people’s individual performance goals.

Attendance at conferences isn’t the goal per se, and professional development is not an employee benefit or perk.  It represents an organization’s strategic investment in its own performance and impact.

* Building individual skills

Individual skills-building can run the gamut depending on an organization’s strategic goals.

That said, consistently popular classes at CompassPoint are around managing people, coaching and supervision skills.

As organizations grow and promote people who haven’t been in a management role before, the return on training is well worth the investment.

Technology is important, too, and it can be overlooked in small and mid-sized organizations.

If you spend a day learning skills that you’ll use every day, such as database management or bookkeeping software, that’s money very well spent.  Technology is moving so quickly that people really need to invest some time there on a regular basis.

* Building leadership skills

Leadership is more than the sum of your topical knowledge; it’s about motivating people, aligning people to change, and sometimes having difficult conversations.

That type of professional development is more about building the capacity of a leader — whether an executive director or another leader on the “bench” — to sustain him or herself, to have a dynamic vision for the organization, and to break down his or her isolation, which is very real for most nonprofit executives.

Because it’s very lonely at the top, we’re doing a lot of work that brings nonprofit executives together over time for peer learning and support.

Senior folks access professional development rarely; it’s hard to get an executive director or board chair into a workshop. What they need is to talk to other leaders in the course of their every day lives.

I would encourage executives to recognize that they need to get out of the office periodically, make time and space to focus on their own development and rejuvenate themselves by listening and sharing with other.

* Building organizational performance

When we survey executive directors, they are most worried about money and how to finance their work. I think it’s important to think about financial and strategic planning in a different way.

People in leadership positions need to have a clear sense of how the organization is financed, determine whether they need to change that in some way to be more viable, and outline the steps to doing that.

If a planning process doesn’t do that, it won’t mitigate those executive fears.

Right now we’re calling this “business planning” because we want to differentiate from strategic planning that did not include substantive financial analysis.

Business planning processes are less about organizational development and more about the realistic means to achieving and financing deep organizational impact.

There’s nothing wrong with strategic planning; it just needs to be done in a modern way.


Jeanne Bell is executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a San Francisco-based organization that provides consulting, research and training services to the community-based nonprofits.

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