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Nonprofit Training By Itself Won’t Get Your Organization Abs of Steel

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Every now and then, I get a call from the executive director of a nonprofit organization that goes something like this:

ED: Hello, Erik. How have you been? How about those Chicago Bears? 

ME: Hey, I’m fine. Way better than the Bears are, at least. What’s up?

ED: Well, we’re heading into our fundraising season, and I thought we could use your help training our staff and board on how to make a “textbook face-to-face ask” with donors.

That’s when I go into my old analogy kit and pull out an old favorite. You can tell it’s old because of the technology and product I mention.

I start by I explaining that I’m thinking about getting in shape (Quick note for context . . . I’ve been wanting to get in shape since high school).

I then tell the ED that I’m leaning towards getting an “Abs of Steel” DVD. It sounds so simple. After all, I just need to put it in the DVD player, plop down in the recliner with a big bowl of buttery popcorn and watch it.  

(Spoiler alert . . . since it is now the 21st Century, you can watch Abs of Steel on YouTube if you want. And, yes, the first videos came out in the early 90s.)

Anyway, surely I will know after watching those instructional videos how I’ll get those metallic stomach muscles. 

What do you think my chances of being as ripped as Tim McGraw might be? 

See, the obvious moral to the story is, nonprofit training in and of itself won’t solve your organization’s problem or get a task done. It’s just one part of a process, and that part can easily go in one ear of your fundraising volunteer and out the other. 

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s one example of what can happen if you rely exclusively on a nonprofit training strategy.

Several years ago, when I once worked for a nationwide nonprofit, I was asked to facilitate a training session titled “Creating a Resource Development Plan” for a number of local affiliates. It even came with a Continuing Education Unit (CEU). Fancy stuff, huh?

This full-day training had all of the bells and whistles — tons of PowerPoint slides guided by goals and learning objectives, handouts, worksheets, samples and more. 

Participants walked away with knowledge and tools. The stated goal was to return home and get to work on engaging the right people in writing their organization’s annual resource development plan.

What could go wrong?

A few weeks later, I checked back with each organization to see how they were doing. I’m sure you see where this is going. 

Of course, all I heard was the sound of crickets. So, later that evening, after work I cued up that classic Simon and Garfunkel song and hummed myself to sleep to the tune of “Hello darkness my old friend . . .”

Once past the sound of silence, I pressed on out of sheer curiosity. I needed to know where I went wrong and what needed to change. 

In no time, it all became clear.

I learned that most participants left the training room, returned home and got stuck. They didn’t know how to engage board members and fundraising volunteers in the planning process.

And the one or two organizations that did create plans, it was simply the executive director writing the plan and the board merely signing off it. As you can guess, the lack of board engagement in the process resulted in inaction.

Please don’t get me wrong. Training is important, but it just sets the stage. If it is done right, training is an engagement process that sets the table for action. 

Want another example?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a Chicago area client contacted me about troubles they were having getting board members to meet their fiduciary responsibilities. They were lackluster about fundraising, recruiting, attending meetings, and cultivating new prospects and supporters. The list really did go on and on.

So, I pulled my trusty-rusty “Board Roles & Responsibilities 101” training out of my toolbox. But this time, I framed the training session with pre-work and post-work. 

I was hell-bent on helping a client develop their organizational abs of steel. 

I was confident that at the end of the training, not only would the organization have an annual board member commitment tool in its toolbox, but each board member would have completed their own form.

What could go wrong this time?

Again, much to my chagrin, all I heard were those pesky crickets when I crossed the finish line. 

Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy the silence, and it sure wasn’t golden for my client. A few months later, the executive director quit her job out of absolute frustration.

In this case, it turned out there was resistance from the board. The executive director wanted this training. Board members never saw the problem and didn’t buy in to the solution. (Another quick note for context … the pre-training work did include an assessment exercise, but denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, right?)

The second moral to today’s story is, you can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do. Before pulling that training tool out of your toolbox, you need to turn nays into yays. Then and only then, once everyone is on the same page should you consider training as a healthy option for organizational growth.

Remember, nonprofit training is not magic. In the real world, it needs to become actionable. Which reminds me. I need to get off the couch and work on my abs. 

Nonprofit Sustainability

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