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Real-world skills valued in nonprofit workplace

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Todd Cohen

At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, providing training and leadership opportunities for employees is central to doing business and fulfilling the organization’s mission.

Every new employee attends classes on topics like organizational culture, diversity and performance management, and all new managers attend classes on topics like employee relations, finance and budgeting.

The Shedd offers over 40 electives for employees, as well as a leadership-development program that features managerial classes, topics like critical thinking and leading innovation, and opportunities for growth both inside and outside the organization.

“We need to have great benefits and we need to provide growth opportunities for our people and keep it interesting,” says Nanette Schonberg, senior director of staff training at the Shedd.

“It benefits everyone,” she says. “It benefits the aquarium by creating very qualified employees to get the work done to meet our goals and mission. And it hopefully benefits the employees because it keeps them challenged, and it offers them new opportunities and skills.”

Recession stress

With the recession putting even greater stress on a workforce already expected to do more with less, experts say, nonprofits are looking for ways to equip employees with the skills and know-how they and their organizations need in a rapidly changing marketplace.

“We’re asking for so much more from so many fewer people, we have to care for them and invest in them as professionals,” says Susan Sanow, deputy executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in Washington, D.C., a membership group that provides nonprofits in the region with group buying programs, advocacy work, networking and education programs.

And with layoffs and hiring freezes, she says, nonprofits need employees who can adapt to new roles.

“People need to realize what they have on their staff may be it for a while,” she says. “How are they going to make the most of the people they have?”

Particularly critical in the current economic crisis, she says, are people who actually know how to generate revenue and raise money.

“If you can bring in money to an organization, you should be able to have a job,” she says.

Rick Moyers, director of programs at the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the closely-linked skills for fundraising and financial management seem to be the ones that executive directors and other senior managers at nonprofits “often wish they were better at.”

And the recession “only exacerbates those needs and makes people with those skills even more valuable,” he says.

Learning culture

While the nonprofit workforce is diverse and quickly becoming even more diverse, says Schonberg of the Shedd Aquarium, nonprofit employees share common needs.

“Those are things like communication, and being respected and given feedback, and opportunities to grow and continue to feel challenged,” she says.

The Shedd, which believes a strong training program can help attract the most talented job applicants, aims to provide its employees with opportunities to keep learning and growing, she says.

That includes providing technical skills employees need as well as the chance to think and work critically, strategically, collaboratively and creatively.

The aquarium’s leadership-development program, for example, aims to “develop leadership skills to help us meet the business needs of the aquarium, help us retain talent through challenging opportunities, and help us identify high-potential employees as future leaders for career development.”

Every year, the organization’s vice presidents also select several employees to attend meetings at which the vice presidents set the organization’s strategic direction.

And ongoing teams of employees study and look for solutions to day-to-day operational needs.

Hands-on learning

Sanow of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement says the organization has developed two programs in response to a study released in 2006 by The Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services that forecast massive turnover among nonprofit executive directors because of the pressures of the job and frustration with their boards and fundraising.

One initiative provides support for executive directors, while the other aims to strengthen emerging leaders within an organization.

Start Smart, the program for executive directors who have been in their job for two years, provides a day-long class each month for four months, and also includes online discussions and peer learning.

The focus, says Sanow, is on helping participants determine the kind of executive director they want to be; the role they should play in setting and pursuing the organization’s vision; work with their board, staff and community; and make sure “they’re taking care of themselves so they do not get burned out.”

Project LEAP, the program for deputy directors and other senior managers, aims to “build bench strength” within an organization.

Executive directors are “asked to do so much fundraising and caretaking, they may not have time to focus on staff,” Sanow says.

So Project LEAP aims to help future leaders “grasp leadership now so executive directors can focus on fundraising and working with their board, and lets them do what they’re supposedly best at.”

A key strategy, she says, is to help emerging leaders learn to “make a difference in your organization up and down” by communicating with and influencing their executive director or supervisor, as well as their staff.

That also is a key strategy for executive directors in working with their board and staff, Sanow says.

Moyers of The Meyer Foundation says hands-on learning is critical for nonprofit executives and staff.

Because of the recession, “you have people asked to take on additional responsibilities,” he says. “So it’s more important than ever that people be flexible in what challenges they’re willing to take on, and that they have good ways to get new skills.”

On-the-job training

Critical to gearing employees to better understand fundraising and financial management is for executive directors to be “more transparent” about financial issues and information within their organizations, Moyers says.

By sharing information with senior and mid-level staff, involving staff in the process of developing the organization’s budget, and holding staff accountable for their own budgets, he says, executive directors can be “building up those financial-management skills” among the staff.

“It’s one thing to send employees to class on financial management,” Moyers says, “and another to live it every day and to look at real financials rather than hypotheticals.”
When employees look at their own organization’s financial data, he says, “it’s easier to understand the connection between mission and finance, and to be able to see in real time the consequences of financial decisions on the organization and its financial position.”

Executive directors can use the same approach to give employees more fundraising experience, Moyers says.

“It’s a skill, something a lot of organizations are looking for and hiring for,” he says. “People do need some theoretical basis, some ideas about solid fundraising,” he says. “But you’re going to learn much more about it when you have to do it.”

And if staff members find they cannot get that experience in their job, he says, they should consider volunteering to serve on the fundraising committee or help plan a special event at another nonprofit.

“That kind of experience is going to be very attractive for one’s whole career,” he says.

Sanow of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement says investing in human capital is critical for nonprofits.

“We have to take some responsibility for the people who work for us,” she says. “As we move forward as a sector, we’ve always known our most important investment is the people who work for us.”

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