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

How To Ensure Effective and Engaged Volunteers – Part Two – Keeping Volunteers Motivated and Supported

In Part One of this series, I wrote about how to find good volunteers. Finding good volunteers is half the battle. You want them to stay, and in order for that to happen, volunteers need to be motivated and supported. Some of the biggest problem areas for volunteers are not having enough work to do, doing work they don’t want to do, and not feeling appreciated.

I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – Don’t take on volunteers if you can’t support them. If you don’t have something concrete for the person to do on a regular basis, don’t take someone on at this time. Volunteers need structure, as well as effort and engagement from the staff.

Are you ready for your new volunteers?
If you are bringing in volunteers to work in your office, make sure they have a decent workspace and computer to use.

Each volunteer should have a supervisor. Other people in the office may have work for the volunteer, but it should all be directed through the supervisor.

Each volunteer should also have a work plan, which can be transformed from the position description. This link includes some sample workplans. Workplace Template They may be more complex than you need.

I strongly recommend putting together a volunteer manual for all volunteers. This can include information such as history and mission, organizational policies, accomplishments, and key messages. You can also write out specific instructions pertaining to each volunteer’s work.

Here are some sample volunteer manuals.
The second one also includes other sample templates such as a volunteer contract.

On their first day
Before your volunteers start work, give them a good orientation. Show them around the office, introduce them to everyone, and show them how pertinent equipment (computer, copier, etc.) works. 

Go over the volunteer manual and the volunteer’s work plan. The volunteer should have input about the type of work they will be doing. Make sure everything is clear.

The amount of training you give your volunteers will depend upon their experience. Take time to give them the best training possible.

In addition, do something special for them on their first day. The Volunteer Manager at a place I used to work would always bring in a cupcake for new volunteers. Another good idea is for the volunteers to eat lunch with the staff. You could either go out or have pizza at the office. This is a great opportunity for volunteers to get to know people.

Are they lovin’ it?
Make sure your volunteer’s experience is a good one. While structure is important, be flexible if the volunteer needs to make a change in their schedule. Volunteers should enjoy the work they for you, and they should like coming in to help. Don’t give them work they don’t want to do.

Keep it up
Volunteers and their supervisors should hold a weekly check-in meeting to go over progress and exchange feedback. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting, but it can help volunteers feel engaged, while the supervisor can assess how well the volunteer is doing.

Show appreciation
Volunteers need to feel appreciated. A simple thank you is always good. So is bringing in treats for them, having a regular lunch together, holding a recognition event, and including volunteer profiles in your newsletter or website.

Volunteers like to be included. If it’s appropriate, invite them to attend staff or committee meetings. Keep them updated on your organization’s progress and accomplishments. Good volunteers could even manage other volunteers

Keep showing appreciation, but make sure it’s sincere and specific.  Encourage everyone on the staff to make your volunteers feel appreciated.

Is it working?
While it’s important to show appreciation, you need to give your volunteers honest, constructive feedback. This is why the weekly check-in meeting is so important. Help your volunteers if they need  improvement or give them another task that might be better suited for them. If a volunteer isn’t working work out, it doesn’t benefit anyone if you keep the person on.

Investing the time to keep your volunteers motivated and supported will pay off for everyone in your organization.

Volunteer Resources
Developing and Managing Volunteer Programs

Photo by The Big Lunch via Flickr

How To Ensure Effective and Engaged Volunteers – Part One – Finding Good Volunteers

Photo by WA State Library via Flickr

It’s National Volunteer Week. Many nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers. Some provide services such as tutoring or mentoring and others help out with publicity and administrative tasks.

Taking on volunteers can be very rewarding for an organization, as well the volunteer, but it can also be frustrating for both parties. Two problem areas are finding the right people and keeping your volunteers engaged. In this post, I’m going to write about finding good volunteers.   

If I can offer one piece of advice it would be – Don’t take on volunteers if you can’t support them.  People may contact you seeking a volunteer opportunity.  If you don’t have something concrete for the person to do on a regular basis, don’t take someone on at this time, even if you think you can’t turn away a potential volunteer. Volunteers require effort and engagement from the staff.

What is your need?
If you do have a need for volunteers, take the process seriously and go about it the same way you would if you were hiring a staff member.

First, put together a position description. This will help you assess your needs and what the person will do. Then you can post it when you recruit. The position description can also be transformed into the volunteer’s work plan.  I will go into more detail about that in my next post.

Here are some sample volunteer position descriptions.

Training vs. Experience
Decide how much training you want to provide. If you are recruiting tutors, they will probably need to go through a training. However, if you are looking for an administrative person, you will most likely want someone with experience.

Finding someone with experience may take longer, but it will be worth it. Yes, people with experience will be looking for paid positions, but you might be able to find someone who is between jobs, a stay-at-home parent with relevant experience, or a retired professional. Don’t be afraid to be picky about choosing volunteers.

If you do bring on volunteers without experience, make sure you give them a good training and are available for guidance and support.

Finding the right people
Your best bet is to ask people close to you, such as board members, staff, and other volunteers. You would want a personal recommendation like this for higher level work and any type of work done on your website. 

Otherwise, you can post announcements on sites such as Idealist or Volunteer Match, on your website and social media, and on community list serves. 

Ask for a resume, writing or design samples, and references. Do a background check if the person will be working with children.

When you interview potential volunteers, besides assessing whether they have the right skills and experience for the position, see if they are willing to commit to a set schedule. This is often one of the biggest problems with volunteers. Of course, they should also be passionate about your work and fit in with your organizational culture.

I really recommend taking the time to screen your candidates. Any investment you make up front will pay off in the end for both your organization and the volunteer.

In Part Two, I will write about keeping your volunteers motivated and supported.

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