How to Get the Nonprofit Leadership Education You Need

Adult learning in a classroomA common challenge I hear from nonprofit leaders is that they feel isolated. Despite the educational opportunities available, few organizations help them get the advanced education they need. This education is an essential part of self-care. In response, I’ve launched a series of pro-bono CEO Conversations.

The Institute for Leaders in Development provides another approach. Here’s their story:

Several years ago, Jennifer Darling, then the Director of Development and Membership, sought to hire a major gifts officer for the Denver Art Museum — an attractive, prestigious position. Yet, she struggled to find qualified candidates. She wasn’t alone. Other colleagues faced similar challenges in filling senior roles.

At the same time, a local foundation noticed that it had to constantly begin relationships with new development staff from the nonprofits with whom it partnered. Darling and other Denver nonprofit leaders invented the Institute for Leaders in Development to address the challenges.

The Institute advances the field of development for Colorado nonprofits. It provides a year-long program for individuals with three or more years of successful fundraising experience—graduates complete academic coursework, a mentorship, and a capstone research project. To participate, you must be nominated and invited.

During the Institute, participants bond with colleagues: After it, they receive greater recognition, a better peer network, and better professional opportunities.

As the Institute welcomes its seventh class of participants this Fall, what are the results?

  •  An improved pipeline of experienced development staff
  • Better staff retention rates
  • More professionalism in the nonprofit sector
  • Increased job satisfaction among senior development staff

The Institute for Leadership Development and other groups aimed at leaders offer opportunities to take charge of your learning. You can sharpen your swords, improve your outcomes, and advance your career.

When you seek leadership development, what might you consider? This post offers additional ideas on what to seek to grow as a nonprofit leader. 

Seek Variety in What You Learn

“I want people with a variety of experiences,” Bob Johnson explained. Bob was a near-retirement Bureau Chief with the State of Florida whose words have stayed with me for decades. “You can be in a job and learn the same thing over and over every day, giving you ten years of experience, or you can learn something new every day. I look for people with the second experience.”

Variety can spring from switching jobs or seeking opportunities to learn new skills in your current one. Last spring, I began a Zumba class. On the surface, Zumba appears to have no professional relevance to advising nonprofit leaders. Yet as I find my limbs not responding to the commands sent by my brain, I remember what it’s like to be a beginner.

It helps me to coach others. Trying something different will remind you what it feels like to be a new board member, employee, or first-time donor. Variety also opens the door to cross-pollination. You might use the flow of a Zumba class to improve a board meeting by remembering to warm folks up and being intentional about how you end your gathering.

Be Picky About What You Select

When you arrive at an all-day event, you get the schedule. It includes several breakout sessions. Which one, as an ingenious nonprofit leader, will you attend? Here’s a suggested way to proceed:

  1. At first, resist those that appeal to you most.
  2. Identify the best presenters from their bios or your knowledge. You’ll learn most from the best teachers.
  3. From these, select the sessions that will help you make progress on your long-term goals.
  4. Then, since nonprofit success depends on relationships, select relationship-building topics, that is, select the session about how to ask vs. how to use Twitter or the latest accounting changes.
  5. If choices remain, pick what appeals to you the most.
  6. Permit yourself, at any time, if the session disappoints, to move to a new session or back to your work.

Likewise, beware of empty calories. Inspirational speakers often come with dessert, and desserts are sugary. You leave high and energized, but by the time you re-submerge into the piles on your desk, the inspiration has melted like cotton candy on the tongue. Seek advanced education with good nutrition.

When You Can Go Deep and Long

You can spend hours engaged in educational opportunities and learn little. Instead of sitting down to a full meal, we tend to nibble at learning. People love TED talks. The best talks are a jolt of caffeine. They inspire and inform, but at eighteen minutes, they lack depth.

Contrast this with the Chautauqua Institution’s learning model: They study a topic for an entire week; in some cases multiple weeks over multiple summers. The Institute for Leaders in Development also requires development directors to dig deep with a capstone project. Or a master-level course.

Focus on a topic for a quarter of the year. You might choose an area where you’ll attend a conference soon—prep for it. Read a book by a presenter and material on the conference’s topic. Alternatively,  focus on board development or the best way to help others interpret financial documents. Or, for lighter fare, read books about other nonprofits to learn how they succeed. (For some classics, see my recommended reading list.)

In part, we fail to go deep because information bombards us. To avoid getting knocked over, we run. Unfortunately, this can make the learning, like rain, roll off our backs. Leaders skim media, but they also slow down to study and consider selected materials. As you focus on a topic, stop and ask: How will I incorporate this knowledge into my life and work?

Nibbling, without analysis and use, results in snippets of data. While often useful for party games, you can’t tell if the data is helpful without a broader context. Many nonprofits “try” to earn a certain kind of income. When one attempt fails, they discard the source.

Annual appeal letters are a classic. “Didn’t work – it barely paid for itself,” mumbles a board member who attended one of my sessions. More accurately, it didn’t meet the expectations. Annual appeal letters are about identifying donors long-term. Only the best of them pay for themselves the first year, but if you only learn a snippet about them, you may not realize their purpose or potential.

When You Can’t Find It, Create Your Own

Finally, consider creating a learning community to solve your advanced education need. Interactive learning is almost always superior to individual learning with the right co-learners. For eighteen months, I met with a team of international consultants virtually. We each taught a topic and then produced the series, “So You Want to Be a Board Member” (A special report available here.) Currently, I am meeting with another colleague regularly. We develop a curriculum, go and use and come back with results and insights to share. 

Meet the Challenge

If you seek advanced learning, you can join existing opportunities (consider asking for a seat at the next Karen’s CEO Conversation, or create your own. Whatever you decide, remember that your learning is part of self-care, and both are as important as keeping the light on in your nonprofit.

Before You Go, Answer this Question

How will you incorporate one idea from this article in your self-care?

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit  CEO Library.

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