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On-the-job learning: Professional development that works

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Jan Masaoka

Jan Masaoka

Jan Masaoka

How did professional development come to mean only classes, webinars, leadership cohorts and coaching?

When did “on the job training” start to sound like a bad joke?

Classes, webinars, leadership cohorts and coaching are all valuable tools.

But I want to make the case for on-the-job training, or OJT.

Much of what makes good and brilliant nonprofit staff is the ability to get things done.

Our consultant-influenced sector has tended to emphasize the importance of good planning and neglected the importance of good execution.

Funders scrutinize plans, in proposals, but are uncertain how to assess capacity, and seldom pay the same attention to what actually occurred.

In fact, much of what we do in nonprofits is more like carpentry than like sociology, and picking up skills is more like learning a language than learning a body of knowledge.

And running a nonprofit program or organization is much more like running a small business than it is like being a professional in a large corporation.

So how do we learn carpentry, a new language, or how to run a small business?

Most of the expertise required comes from doing, from careful observation, from having our work critiqued, by experimenting, by doing something again, only better the next time, by doing something that’s a little harder, something newer to us.

A carpenter values classroom learning about wood types, but skilled carpentry is learned through apprenticeships.

A new language is learned partly in the classroom, but largely by immersion and practice, practice, practice.

Rather than bemoan the lack of dollars these days to spend on sending staff to Harvard classrooms, hopefully the economic downturn will remind us that OJT is not only the most cost-effective, it is the most effective, period, given the work we do.

Would you hire a person with a Ph.D. in fundraising or a person who has raised funds for the last three years under a master fundraiser?

Early in my career, I was lucky to be taken under the wing of a senior fundraiser who took me to receptions and gave me assignments to go talk to various people, then return and debrief with him about how the conversations had gone and what I could have done better.

On-the-job training is not the same as throwing someone into a swimming pool and expecting them to learn how to swim on their own. OJT is about apprenticeships — structured growth through new challenges, with feedback and coaching at every step of the way.

When one of my co-workers at Compass Point ran a new workshop for the first time, another co-worker attended to critique it.

Her summary: “Good trainer; bad training.”

I love the bluntness and supportiveness of this critique, and her blow-by-blow critique helped polish this workshop into a gem.

In particular, management teams are prime examples where on-the-job training is opportune, yet neglected.

Most nonprofit management teams discuss personnel conflicts, budget issues and the coordination of operations.

In short, they act like coordination teams, rather than the leadership development training platforms they could be.

A couple of thoughts for making on the job training a focus of management teams:

* Add a discussion of an external matter to every management team meeting and perhaps to every other staff meeting. How do we assess our competition? What competition is emerging? What did we learn about our position in the field from the last conference we went to?

* Create two-person task forces in the management team to tackle questions and bring back a few proposals to the group, perhaps on whether or not to run the special event this fall, or how to get closer to government funding officials.

In the management team meeting, critique not only members’ ideas, but their research, their analysis, and their presentation. Be as blunt and supportive as you can be.

* Ask management team members, and ask them to ask their own teams: “What do you want to learn on this job to help you get your next job, whether at this organization or another one? Let’s figure out what tasks you can take on and how we’ll critique them, how to give you strong apprenticeship training to take you to mastery level.”

High quality workshops are incredibly powerful learning tools. Consulting and coaching are also key ways we get better at getting things done.

But let’s not neglect the most important of all – on-the-job learning.


Jan Masaoka is editor of Blue Avocado, co-author of “The Case for Learning is the Case for Training” and former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.

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