More than ever, emerging mission-driven leaders are hungry for opportunities to learn–particularly practical, hands-on skills and abilities they can use in their current and future work. Promising leaders are more willing to stay with an organization if there are learning and development opportunities. On the flip side, they’re more likely to leave if learning isn’t a priority.
From a sector point of view, this is a really good thing. Nonprofits tackle some of the most complex issues in the world–usually without enough resources or infrastructure. This makes building talent at all levels critical to overall effectiveness.
From an organizational point of view, research shows that learning and development initiatives have a very high return on investment–creating more impact, increased revenue, lower costs, and greater stability. Sadly, most organizations spend their leadership development dollars ineffectively or don’t invest at all. It’s possible to begin with free or low-cost learning opportunities, but organizations need to help their senior leaders, boards, and funders see that longer-term investments in talent are mission-critical.
Building a learning organization takes more than just investing in individuals. Peter Senge’s framework, for instance, outlines five learning disciplines, of which individual learning, or “Personal Mastery,” is just one (if you haven’t read Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, buy it now and read it at your earliest convenience). Without individual learners and leaders, though, you’ll never cultivate a learning organization.
Here are some practical ways you can get the ball rolling…
If you already lead an organization or team:
- Determine what talent is already in place in your organization. Figure out if staff members are poorly placed or underutilized.
- Identify individuals who are hungry for learning and leadership challenges, and give them assignments (McCauley’s Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences without Changing Jobs has some helpful ideas). Give people explicit accountability and responsibilities for tasks or decisions (see Bridgespan’s “52 Free Development Opportunities for Nonprofit Staff“).
- Help your board understand the importance of investing in learning and development. Ask board members to serve as mentors to promising staff. Begin to set aside funds within team budgets for learning opportunities. Work toward investing in performance systems.
- Create interdisciplinary teams from across departments to take on strategic issues, giving participants new perspective from outside their usual roles.
- When you do a project or program evaluation, use the opportunity to learn about what is working well and what could be better. Translate this into specific learning goals for key staff.
If you want to lead an organization or team someday:
- Take ownership of your own learning and development. Seek out mentors and ask for responsibilities that stretch you (see “How to Develop Yourself as a Nonprofit Leader“).
- Find opportunities outside your organization to take on leadership responsibilities (perhaps as a board member or volunteer).
- Participate in interdisciplinary teams to build your understanding of how other functions operate. Identify leaders in your organization who have jobs or skills that you want to build toward, and interview them about their roles and perspectives.
- Recruit a “personal board of directors” who are committed to seeing you succeed.
What are other ways you create learning opportunities for yourself and your organization?