If fulfilling your mission and being identified as an employer of choice are priorities for your nonprofit, invest in employee professional development. On the organizational level, you will build a skilled workforce prepared to meet your constituents’ evolving needs, and on an individual level, employees will feel engaged, valued, and committed to your cause.

This guide outlines four tips for nonprofits of all sizes and levels of sophistication to improve their professional development programs. By following them, your organization will experience greater employee satisfaction and an enhanced bottom line.

1. Align individual and organizational goals.

A key ingredient to success is having everyone moving forward together. Your employees already believe in your mission and values because they joined your team rather than accepting employment somewhere else, but it is essential to reinforce these messages. Bake them into everything your organization does, externally and internally. They should be displayed in your culture, organizational processes and policies, and public interactions.

Employees want to work for an organization they are proud of and that matches their belief systems. However, they also expect employers to value them as individuals, recognize their contributions, and invest in their futures. They need to understand how their specific efforts and successes are entwined with the nonprofit’s overall success.

To jump-start this process:

  • Review (and update, if needed) your mission and vision statements.
  • Roll out any changes or clarifications as reinvigorated priorities for the organization.
  • Ensure buy-in to organizational strategies and tactical processes by seeking team member input from across the organization.
  • Identify individual short- and long-term goals and work with employees to devise a pathway for achieving them.
  • Establish regular check-ins between managers and direct reports to discuss personal career objectives and review how each employee’s contributions and ambitions feed organizational success.

When your nonprofit actively supports personal growth, it builds a strong bench of loyal, long-term employees. Connecting the dots between personal and organizational aspirations is essential to raising awareness and ensuring that employees see how their daily tasks and continuing education influence both their career advancement and the success of the organization.

2. Offer diverse learning opportunities.

Central to professional development is a robust training program. To accommodate differences in individual styles, preferences, and goals—as well as maximize organizational resources— employ various instruction delivery methods, such as:

  • Onboarding that provides general organizational overviews as well as role-specifics (as needed).
  • Traditional in-person training sessions.
  • Workshops in a focused area run by either internal or external experts.
  • Industry conferences.
  • Interactive online courses or webinars.
  • Mentoring and coaching programs.
  • Peer or colleague shadowing.
  • Casual lunch and learns.

Remember to incorporate virtual options to reach hybrid and remote employees.

The continuing education you offer is part of your total rewards package. The costs associated with acquiring new skills (e.g., conference fees, seminar registrations, online learning subscriptions) add value to your staff’s work experience and are part of their overall compensation. Emphasize these benefits when discussing employment and advancement opportunities with new hires and existing staff.

3. Encourage participation in your program.

Even the most carefully curated professional development program will produce lackluster results if your staff does not participate. Communicating generally about the program and highlighting specific offerings is critical to motivating staff, but it is only a starting point.

Once employees are aware of educational opportunities, they must be able to take advantage of them. In many instances, employees feel that they do not have the bandwidth or the support of their supervisors. Encourage a culture of continuous learning.

Stakeholders at all levels must work to create an environment where the acquisition of new skills and knowledge is nurtured. It starts with leadership, who must support learning initiatives and model this commitment. For example, they should encourage their direct reports to seek educational opportunities—no matter your level in the organization, you can always learn something new.

Build educational expectations into employee performance plans. Ensure they have the flexibility to attend training sessions and conferences. Recognize individual employees’ “wins” at team meetings and share them with the broader organization to inspire others to take advantage of your offerings.

Cultivating a work environment that values individual development benefits both employees and the organization. Not only do employees feel seen and respected, but you will enhance your brand as a desirable employer and a respected community member.

4. Measure your program’s impact.

A strong commitment to professional development is evidenced not only by a positive work environment and confident employees but also by quantifiable results. A well-trained and professional staff commits fewer mistakes, has increased productivity, and is more efficient. Additionally, higher retention rates reduce turnover costs. All of this will give your nonprofit an edge in fundraising and meeting (or exceeding) board, member, and constituent expectations.

To ensure your program is on target, you should continuously evaluate its impact on employees and the community you serve. This information will provide essential data to assess current and future offerings.

To measure the effectiveness of various learning modes, focus on the following:

  • Tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) for your programs, such as participation and course completion rates.
  • Measuring productivity, safety, accuracy, and employee retention metrics post-training.
  • Reviewing skill development through pre- and post-training assessments.
  • Evaluating post-training performance.
  • Gathering employee feedback through surveys after each training session.
  • Assessing employee engagement through climate surveys.
  • Requesting input from beneficiaries regarding employee interactions and the services you provide.

Evaluating the success of your existing program is multifaceted and requires know-how. Some nonprofits may not have the available resources for such analyses, but external HR consultants can provide this support.

HR consultants help you monitor your current program and also recommend improvements. Relying on these HR professionals ensures that your program furnishes employees with the most up-to-date information through effective delivery systems.

Over time, the professional development needs of your staff and organization will change, requiring your program to respond to new employee expectations, market forces, and other developments (such as technological advancements). If you remain committed to providing comprehensive and creative learning opportunities, one thing will remain constant—your organization’s success. As a result, you will benefit from a strong reputation in the community, a competitive edge for attracting new talent, and high marks for employee engagement and retention.