Mary Teresa Bitti
The way Kirk Kramer sees it, the skills needed to manage nonprofits today fall loosely into three categories — program management, general leadership and management, and function or department skills.
To some extent, says Kramer, a partner at the Boston office of strategic-consulting firm Bridgespan Group, if you are a finance person, you can get training in the for-profit world because many of those skills are portable.
But when it comes to development, or managing a specific program, particularly as it relates to direct-service providers, the situation can be quite different.
“If you are a program person, you are trained in how to help kids or something very specific, says Kramer. “You are not trained in economics, finance or cost allocation, all of which are skills you need in putting together a grant or a bid for a contract for services.”
As a result, Kramer says, he has seen many nonprofits develop their own internal courses to train their people in the fundamentals of finance, budgeting and economics so they can better run programs.
In some cases, nonprofits work with local or regional educational institutions to develop programs for continuing education that are more highly tailored to the nonprofits’ needs.
“It helps with the job, making sure their people have the skills to survive in the real world, and it has the added benefit of helping with retention,” he says.
Kramer also points to associations such as the Alliance for Children and Families, which has developed a week-long course for the University of Michigan.
“They created it for their members and tailored it to the upper-middle tier of management who need more exposure to business thinking in the nonprofit world,” he says.
Still, professional development is a tough sell for donors, many of whom have come to expect nonprofits to operate on a shoestring, says Kramer.
In the for-profit sector, certain kinds of overhead are seen as essential, he says, including investing in people, training, infrastructure and technology.
Businesses would not think of operating without them.
But in the nonprofit sector, there is a lot of pressure to drive operating costs down.
“And training is one of those areas that looks discretionary,” says Kramer. “Without it you can’t continue to grow and deal with complex needs and be effective in meeting those needs.”
Larger networks with several locations, such as the YMCA or Boys and Girls Clubs, are increasingly using online technologies to deliver cost-effective courses to their people.
The Alliance for Nonprofit Management operates an online learning community that has information on its website to help people in nonprofits understand basic concepts of management.
The more senior the role a manager plays, the more dependence there is on peers and peer networks to learn best practices.
Most of the chapters of the American Marketing Association, for example, have affinity groups for nonprofit leaders.
Bridgestar, a Bridgespan initiative aimed at helping nonprofits develop strong leadership teams, has a group in New York serving chief financial officers, and another group in Boston for chief operating officers, as well as list-serves for both groups where the participants share their questions back and forth.
“Things change daily at nonprofits,” says Kramer. “The pressure is enormous for nonprofits, especially those that rely on government funding. Training is a big issue for the sector.”