Professional Development, What is it Good For? Absolutely Everything.

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Allison Plitman and Elizabeth Ruf

As a land-grant university, NC State is committed to providing students hands-on, highly-engaged learning opportunities AND to providing research that is of direct, practical use to the fields we work in. Philanthropy Journal proudly presents the latest in a series of evidence-based resource articles developed by Dr. Amanda J. Stewart‘s masters level Management of Nonprofit Organizations classes. These articles represent a perfect overlap of engaged learning and practical research.

The State of Professional Development

The nonprofit sector faces many challenges: funding, competition and mission drift, to name a few. While the nonprofit sector faces these challenges, there’s a dark horse plaguing most nonprofits: employee turnover rate. Whether from burnout, poor compensation, or a myriad of other reasons, the nonprofit sector must look inward to reconcile this issue.

The Daring to Lead 2011 Report states of nonprofit executives, “7% have given notice and 67% anticipate leaving within five years. But within that 67% there is also a large cohort (10%) who have not given notice but say they are actively considering leaving.”[1]

How can the nonprofit sector actively work to turn the tide? Focus on its employees and their wants as needs as it relates to individual career growth. Investment in professional development can help retain employees at all levels of an organization. This is not only relevant but important because, as the Stanford Social Innovation Review notes: “Lack of development and growth opportunities ranked next [in exit survey], cited by half of respondents as a reason that leaders leave their organizations.”[2]

Because not every nonprofit has a staff the size of IBM, we recognize the lack of title promotion within our sector. What we cannot always offer by means of vertical mobility (new job titles, etc.) we can make up for with the development of an employee’s skill sets. Nonprofits that do this well, have the ability to make up for the “lack of upward trajectory.”[3] That said, respondents from the same survey, “ranked their organizations lower than 6 out of 10 on their ability to develop their staff.”[4]

Not only is staff development important for an organization’s employees, but also for the organization itself. Nonprofits face high costs for losing staff, particularly those higher up in the organizational structure: “One study suggests that losing a star performer in a senior development role costs nine times her annual salary to replace.”[5] With the financial costs stark, we can only imagine the cost to the organization’s mission and programs. In a field fighting mission drift, it is imperative nonprofits not lose focus. Imagine what a small financial investment in an employee’s development could save a nonprofit in the long run.

How do we as a sector grapple with retaining quality employees while not necessarily being able to provide salaries competitive with the private sector? In short, we need to think about providing professional development opportunities, no matter what.

Case Study: Food Bank CENC

Amy Beros, VP of Development for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (the Food Bank), has been in her role for a little over two years. As VP of Development, Beros leads the team responsible for fundraising efforts. And, she’s helping to shift the organizational culture as it pertains to professional development. Before Beros began to help the Food Bank think holistically about professional development, it was handled on an ad hoc basis. This meant that employees who found professional development opportunities and brought them to their manager were granted the ability to participate. Those who did not take that initiative, were not. Now, professional development is a part of the planning process and more evenly split among departments and staffers. Here’s her approach:

About halfway through the year, January and February, Beros conducts what she calls “stay interviews.” These candid conversations ask what keeps her staff working, what would keep them at the organization for another three years, and what their career goals are. These ‘stay interviews’ help inform her decisions. Beros uses budget time, April and May, to sift through her staff’s professional development wish lists and submit her budget proposal for the upcoming year. She works under the assumption that her budget will be similar to previous years.

“About 80% of what people want to do I’m able to make possible. We have a pretty healthy budget for this in my department, it’s been a big focus area and I think it will grow to be more of a focus area,” Beros says.

Beros encourages her staff to talk and think about lateral moves as well, “[career paths are] a conversation we’re just now having with people. Promotion doesn’t necessarily have to be the next level in the area you’re working, but it could be the next step in your career. And I think that’s very different for people in nonprofits to think about.” A lateral move could be shifting from a development (fundraising) role to a programming one. Beros encourages her staff to think about the big picture of their careers; growing in one’s job doesn’t necessarily mean a new title, it could mean learning about another part of the business.

Applied Learnings: Moving Forward as a Sector

By increasing professional development opportunities, the nonprofit sector can solve three critical challenges: societal image, employee retention and organizational strength. It’s a win-win.

There are long standing societal notions of nonprofits as ineffective when compared to profit-based companies. While these notions are multifaceted, sourced in phrases like ‘red tape’ and ‘overhead’, addressing the professional development gap can make organizations more effective. Companies driven by profit, not mission, can invest in their employees without a second guess. When nonprofits do so, it’s perceived as wasteful and driving up administrative costs. As a sector, we need to actively work to shift this mindset, and show that investing in our employees is in fact good for business.

Nonprofit employees who are given professional development opportunities are less likely to seek work elsewhere, whether a different nonprofit or in the private sector. By building a culture of professional development nonprofits are better suited to compete against other industries. Putting time and energy into developing personnel allows nonprofits to ensure those staffers will be around for longer. This cuts at the issue of high turnover and burnout, which in turn benefits the organization, programs and its mission. We recognize that not every nonprofit will have as robust of a professional development practice as the Food Bank of CENC, but by taking smaller steps the sector can better support its employees and embrace longevity.


[1] Meyer Foundation and Compass Point. (2011). Daring to Lead 2011:A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership. Retrieved from:   http://daringtolead.org/wp-content/uploads/Daring-to-Lead-2011-Main-Report-online.pdf

[2] Landles-Cobb, L., Kramer, K., & Smith Milway, K. (2015, October 22). The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit (SSIR). Retrieved May 1, 2018, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_nonprofit_leadership_development_deficit

[3] Ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Ibid


Allison Plitman is Director of Jewish Student Life at Emory Hillel in Atlanta, GA. She graduated with her MPA and Policy Certificate from NC State University in May, 2018. Her background in Africana Studies and Sociology fuel her quantitative skills with theoretical backing.

Elizabeth Ruf is a social media specialist at NC State University. She is a student in the MPA program at NC State and brings five years of nonprofit experience to the table. She has spoken at the NC Tech for Good Conference and enjoys giving back to her community through volunteerism.

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