5 Training Tips for Multi-Functional Nonprofit Teams

Nonprofit training is the key to running a successful organization. Learn how to incorporate these tips into your training to make the most of your resources.

By Matt Hugg

Training your nonprofit team is more important than ever. Methods and operations are changing daily, whether that’s for accounting and tax-filing, fundraising, program delivery, or any of the dozens of other functions in your organization. 

Then there’s the issue of liability. What if you make a mistake because you or your team members weren’t fully trained? Not to mention, learning the latest in whatever you do can be a lot cheaper than continuing on in the old, inefficient way. 

So, yes, you have no choice. You, your staff, and volunteers need to keep up. 

What are some great ways to keep multi-functional teams up to speed? Here are five powerful tips from experienced nonprofit training professionals:

1. Implement cross-training.

Cross-training isn’t new. You learn someone else’s job, and they learn yours. Then, if something happens, you’re both covered.

The problem is that a lot of people feel threatened by cross-training. They interpret it as the first step to replacing them—or at least making them more vulnerable to layoffs. “After all,”the rationale goes,“if someone else can do my job, why do they need me?”

The way someone takes to cross-training speaks more to the culture of the workplace than the value of the practice. There’s no doubt that understanding someone else’s job is valuable. 

Just imagine—and unfortunately, this is more than theoretical these days—your colleague comes down with an unexpected illness. They could be out for weeks. You can’t just stop providing your services because one person isn’t there. Given the state of today’s world, we’re probably in the best position to make a non-threatening case for cross-training. 

So how do you begin? Effective cross-training doesn’t start when you show up at someone’s desk and say, “show me how.” Instead, it starts with something everyone should be doing: documenting their work processes. 

Creating a “how-to” manual for your job may seem like busywork, but it’s an effective way to learn your job in the best way possible while reflecting the brand and values of your nonprofit. It can also be valuable for performance evaluations and if someone needs to step into your role in an emergency.

With your manual in hand (or more likely, on a screen or tablet), you’re ready to start cross-training. 

First, pair off your staff. It might seem logical to match people with similar or equivalent positions, especially when specific skills or licensures are involved. For example, matching a social worker who cares for children with one who cares for the elderly. However, you can reap even greater benefits (and provide greater insights) by connecting people with entirely different roles, like a manager with a coordinator or a person from one department with someone from another. 

To get the job done faster and with some measure of enthusiasm, institute an incentive system. Consider rewarding the team (with money, a day off, a gift card, etc.) when the trainee can successfully show competence in the work they’re learning.

2. Incorporate multi-channel learning.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that humans are wired in a variety of ways in how they best receive information. Some of us learn best by reading. Others love video. Others still get the most out of podcasts. And let’s not forget the ones who need a live classroom, whether online or in-person. Everyone has their favorite.

When it comes to training your staff, there’s good news and bad news in this. The good news is that if you pick the right one, your team’s ability to receive and process information will skyrocket, and you’ll have a more effective staff as a result. The bad news is that producing training in so many ways is time-consuming and costly. Plus, the same person who can write a training manual may be the wrong person to present that information in a video or podcast and vice versa. 

It would be disingenuous to suggest that you can take a middle ground on this. No matter what method you select, if you stick with a single channel, you’ll get mixed results at best. Some will suck up the information, and others will check out in the first few minutes. So, it’s a good idea to go with two or more channels to better accommodate your learners and ensure that they do the best learning they can.

3. Incentivize education.

What’s disappointing as an educator is knowing that at some time in nearly everyone’s life, they had a bad learning experience—and that’s usually the experience they remember the most. Perhaps they were bored, they had test anxiety, or they even associate education with the physical and emotional pain that was inflicted by bullies or terrible teachers. So, when you say “we’re having a training session on that,” you can almost see the flashbacks on their faces as they return to whatever bad experience they recall.

Since you can’t guarantee that someone will joyfully, or at least with an open mind, show up at your training, your best bet is to incentivize them. 

Incentivizing isn’t just a reward at the end of successful completion of your training—although it can be. It starts before the training begins, with a promise that what you’re presenting will be engaging—and yes, even fun. Creating expectations is critical to successful training. You need to market the benefits of attendance, even if it’s required. Training is more effective, and easier to carry out, if the trainees want to be there.

Then, of course, you need to carry out that promise. If you do, recruiting attendees for your next training will be much easier. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised when there are a lot of empty seats in front of you next time.

4. Prioritize ongoing learning.

“Show me your budget and I’ll show you your priorities.” More than likely, you’ve heard this saying before.

So, what’s your budget for staff and volunteer education and training? What does it tell us?

You’re going to pay for education one way or another. If it’s not in your budget, many of your staff and volunteers won’t take the initiative and expense on themselves. You’ll “pay” in using outdated processes, high staff and volunteer turnover, and maybe even a lawsuit that hits when someone makes a costly mistake because they’re not properly trained for their function. That means organizational training is actually one of the smartest investments you can make!

But paying for education may not mean paying for someone to take a class or go to a conference. There are a lot of free resources out there. For a low-cost training initiative, you could equip someone to organize a certification program that takes staff or volunteers through specific videos, documents, or podcasts with a test you devise at the end. 

Or, you could set up your own training programs using in-house staff. It’s shown that if you need to teach someone else, you learn that subject better yourself, as well. Assigning someone on your staff to teach fellow team members can be a growth experience for them and an excellent learning experience for others.

5. Keep it short and focused. 

The human brain is a funny thing. It’s much more powerful than the fastest computer we can build, but it works best when data is input in short, measured flows. 

Think of a funnel and a hose. If you turn the hose on full blast, it’s easy to overwhelm the funnel and spill water all over the ground. If you regulate the flow, you get full value from the water when it all goes down the tube. It’s the same with the human brain.

In professional development, this means keep your subject matter focused, and present it in short bursts of time—like 20 minutes or less. 

This doesn’t mean you have to schedule 60 minutes of training over three days. It means to schedule strategic breaks and processing time into your training. For example, watch a short video (less than 20 minutes), then complete a review questionnaire, interact with other learners about the subject, or take a coffee break. Just make sure you’re giving time for your material to sink in before pushing more down the funnel.


Education and training are too valuable to your nonprofit to leave them to chance. You can’t waste your organization’s resources on ineffective training, and you can’t afford not to train, either. Your staff, volunteers, and most importantly, those you serve, deserve it. Good luck!

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.  

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff, and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College, and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe. He is also a popular conference speaker