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Building nonprofit skills – and people

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Ret Boney

When Kristen Mickey took over a nonprofit serving autistic kids five years ago, she was 34, coming out of the fundraising department of an independent school, and had never managed an organization.

She admits feeling overwhelmed in the beginning, managing a staff of about 50 and a budget of $2.4 million, and coordinating intensive services for children in the San Francisco area.

In part, she credits a course for new executive directors and leadership coaching with helping her adjust and succeed as the head of the Foundation for Autistic Childhood Education and Support, or Faces.

“I’m happy with my job,” Mickey says. “But it is by no means easy. I believe that being a nonprofit CEO is much harder than being a for-profit CEO because you don’t have a huge management team and resources. You just have to do the best you can.”

With tight budgets, little time and most grants tied up in program support, many nonprofits find it hard to sharpen their skills.

In 2005, the average corporation spent just over $1,000 per employee on professional development, and best-in-class businesses spent $1,435, says the State of the Industry Report by the American Society for Training & Development.

Nonprofits and governments, on the other hand, spent an average of $656 per employee.

“People see professional development as the nice-to-haves, rather than the must-haves,” says Kathleen Enright, executive director of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a coalition of about 300 grantmakers. “I would argue it is absolutely critical.”

Finding the money

The mission of Enright’s organization is to advocate for changes in grantmakers’ practices that improve nonprofits’ outcomes and effectiveness, and she says the biggest obstacle to professional development is a lack of flexible, unrestricted dollars.

And while she believes operating support is an issue whose time has come, many funders still are reluctant to make the internal policy decisions required to make change a reality.

But it’s in funders’ best interests to help their grantees improve, she says.

“It takes an enlightened funder to look at an organization holistically, but you can only get good results from high-performing organizations,” she says. “You have to look at the whole, not just the program that is most relevant to your priorities.”

In requesting money for professional development, Enright suggests being specific and candid, not only about the benefits you expect from a specific training, but about the limitations your organization will face without it.

Making the time

There’s much nonprofits can do if they are intentional about it, says Marc Osten, founder and senior consultant at Summit Collaborative, which works to help nonprofits align their mission with their capacity and skills sets.

“It’s a red herring to say we don’t have time to do professional development,” he says. “Every day you’re on the job you’re learning. The question is how do you align your professional development needs and individual needs within the organization?”

He cites one nonprofit that does no external professional development, but has its staff, which has a wide skill set, cross-train each other when new expertise is needed.

Another nonprofit sent two staffers for an expensive week-long training on building knowledge management systems.

On their return, they built a new intranet and are now dispersing that knowledge among the staff, he says.

“You have to align the culture and style in which your organization works with its capacity to invest time and money,” says Osten.

He says the biggest challenge is making professional development a priority, because if it’s not, the notion of skills-building becomes devalued over time and weaknesses go unidentified.

“They live with the weaknesses until something breaks and then there’s a scramble mentality that occurs,” he says.

Investing in people

In some ways, professional development can be as much about showing commitment to employees as it is about building skills, says Enright.

“I’m in a job that is about nonprofit effectiveness, and the nonprofit sector has no greater asset than the passionate professionals working in it,” she says. “We neglect those people to our own detriment.”

Investing in staff shows them they are valued, she says, and breeds loyalty and job satisfaction in a sector known for hard work and comparatively low pay.

Mickey says the peer network she developed with other CEOs during her leadership course has been invaluable over the past five years, both in providing a support system and in helping her realize the challenges she faces are not unique.

And she still has half-hour sessions with an executive coach most weeks, talking through problems, upcoming events or management issues.

“It’s been priceless to have someone to talk to who is there to help you and you alone and who is totally neutral,” says Mickey, noting that often is tough for nonprofit executives to talk about their perceived weaknesses to their staff or board.

Enright says that kind of support is important for the sector as a whole.

“We have one of the most motivated and committed workforces in the country,” she says, “and we’d best be good stewards of that incredible resource, or that could shift.”

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