nonprofit professional development

Nonprofit professionals and the organizations that depend on them understand the importance of investing in ongoing professional development. They know that not investing in such education can result in missing a beat or a donation—or lots of them.

That’s because the fundraising world—indeed, the world in general—is changing fast, especially when it comes to communications. And what is fundraising but carefully crafted, targeted communications that move people’s hearts and hands to support causes they believe in?

That’s where ongoing professional development for fundraisers and nonprofit leaders comes in.

Jill Murphy, membership and post operations senior manager at the Society of American Military Engineers, listens to at least one podcast a week—and she’s been in the fundraising sector for more years than she cares to think about. “Never stop learning” is her rallying cry.  

“I constantly do professional development programs. This summer I earned a digital marketing certificate. It was a 10-week course and I learned a ton,” said Murphy, who for seven years was the senior manager of member services for the DMA Nonprofit Federation. As such, she organized hundreds of professional development opportunities both online and in person for nonprofit leadership and fundraisers.

“My feeling is if you’re not keeping up with what’s going on in marketing, then you’re going to be left behind with how quickly new technologies change the way we market as nonprofits,” Murphy said, acknowledging that it’s getting harder and harder to engage with donors and potential donors.

A recent project by NTEN and Cornerstone, “The State of Nonprofit Professional Development,” uncovered that “nonprofit staff want to learn and grow in their jobs and careers and that they seek to pursue professional development even if it’s not an official part of the expectations and evaluations in their jobs.”

Why investing in ongoing professional development is so important 

Lighthouse Counsel President Jeff Jowdy and his staff produce regular career development resources in the form of blog posts and podcasts because he knows how important it is for his clients and other nonprofit professionals to keep up

But, as you likely know, it’s not always easy for harried executives and multi-tasking fundraisers to stop what they’re doing and take a course or pursue another time-consuming opportunity. That said, it’s crucial to future success. 

“Things change rapidly in fundraising, and it’s really important for nonprofit leaders to stay on top of trends and strategies, as well as technology advancements, so that they’re doing everything they possibly can to create positive experiences for donors and other supporters,” Jowdy said. “An organization that refuses to grow and adapt won’t stay healthy for long.”

There’s no denying that the fundraising world is competitive; there are a lot of organizations vying for the same donor dollar. Fundraisers who don’t keep up will lose out, and then what happens to their noble causes and the people who depend on their help? 

Here are just a few key ways investing in ongoing professional education can keep you on top of your game.

 By investing in nonprofit professional development, you will: 

  1. Keep up with technology.
  2. Stay connected to your donor’s motivation.
  3. Stave off burnout.
  4. Keep pace with your organization’s competitors.
  5. Ensure credibility for the nonprofit sector and fundraising profession.
  6. Learn to make the best use of your board and keep board members busy and up to date.
  7. Effectively manage volunteers.
  8. Understand your organization’s financial needs and processes.
  9. Stay versatile and aware of the needs and processes in departments throughout your organization.
  10. Stay connected to your peers.

Ruby Chadwick, head of global engagement and events for The Resource Alliance, knows that nonprofit professional development opportunities are an important and welcome part of a nonprofit professional’s job

“It’s amazing to see people coming together year after year, happy to reconnect and to make new connections,” Chadwick said. “Learning is about a free exchange of ideas among colleagues. It’s about communication and about commiserating, at times,” she said. “Even in a virtual environment, professional education sessions allow us to hear from our colleagues and to learn from them every bit as much as from the official speakers.”

Amy Eisenstein, CEO and co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, and Adrian Sargeant, co-director at the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, conducted a study titled “Major Gift Fundraising: Unlocking the Potential for Your Nonprofit*.” 

Looking at the findings, they bemoaned the fact that many nonprofits balk at investing in staff development because they fear folks will just learn and leave, “wasting” the money the organization put into their professional development.

But that thinking is simply outdated and short-sighted. Keep reading to see why. 

Nonprofit professional development will take you out of your comfort zone—and that’s a good thing. 

AfriKids, a U.K. organization that fights for the rights of the world’s children, sent staff members to a recent International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands. As a result, they funneled their learnings into a matching gift campaign and raised more than five times the campaign’s projected fundraising goal. 

What the AfriKids fundraisers learned about donor stewardship and messaging, especially for a matching gift opportunity, completely changed their approach and resulted in a major fundraising win.

The campaign raised a total of roughly $735,000—about $682,000 of which was matched by the government. The total at the end of the campaign was $1.4 million, five times more than what they were hoping to raise. They used the money to stress the value of education to communities and improve teacher training in primary schools across Northern Ghana. In all, the training had a positive impact on 18,000 children and 350 teachers.

Professional development isn’t just for beginners. Leaders need to learn too. 

Lighthouse Council’s Jowdy said ongoing professional development for leaders is important as well, although their learning needs to be less in the weeds and more about the big picture.

“It all trickles down from there,” he said. “A leader who has lost his desire to learn and remain relevant will lead teams right over the edge of mediocrity. And in today’s environment, mediocrity is just not acceptable.”

Professional development helps you build donor trust. 

According to Giving USA, American individuals, bequests, foundations, and corporations gave an estimated $449.64 billion to U.S. charities in 2019, which was one of the highest years ever for charitable giving. The professionalization of fundraising was just one factor that helped build donor trust, which led to an increase in donations.

Issues like transparency and accountability, impeccable stewardship, and, most compelling of late, equity and diversity are the cornerstones on which the foundation of the best and most successful nonprofits are built. Donors are watching, and they’re expecting their contributions to be put to the very best use—and in the way you communicated you would use the donations when soliciting them in the first place. 

One way to assure them you will do so is by hiring and continuing to employ professional and knowledgeable fundraisers. This gives donors peace of mind and deepens the overall trust of the giving public in the organizations they support and the nonprofit sector in general.

Investing in ongoing nonprofit professional development is a win-win that keeps the individual professional on the cutting edge. This keeps organizations working efficiently and effectively—and raising more money—and helps to elevate the nonprofit sector and build trust in the eyes of the people who support it.

Look into CharityHowTo, a unique continuing education resource.

CharityHowTo provides training of both the instantly-actionable type and overall strategies for long-term success for nonprofit leaders and fundraisers, no matter their organization’s size, budget, or mission. 

We produce both free and premium live and on-demand webinars that give our nonprofit community hundreds of opportunities each month to learn from the best-of-the-best nonprofit experts from around the world. They provide relevant, tactical advice around 29 of the most pressing nonprofit topics and show how you can turn those learnings into real results. 

Consider investing in a CharityHowTo membership as part of your goal to support ongoing professional development. For more information, visit charityhowto.com.

 *Note: This project was partially sponsored by Bloomerang.

Margaret Battistelli Gardner
Margaret has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years and a nonprofit marketing and communications professional for 15 years. She was editor-in-chief of FundRaising Success magazine (now FundraisingPRO) and chief scribe and content manager for The Resource Alliance, which curates the International Fundraising Congress in Holland and other global fundraiser training conferences. She currently is the deputy managing editor at The Galveston County Daily News in Galveston, Texas, and on a freelance basis writes fundraising and other communications for a variety of nonprofits.
Margaret Battistelli Gardner

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