Choosing to start a nonprofit organization can be the best decision you ever make. Yet the whole nonprofit startup process can resemble this famous and amusing quote from an American Secretary of Defense:
…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know… it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones. – Donald H. Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, February 12, 2002
Or, to interpret:
- There are things you know, and you can deal with.
- There are things you don’t know, but you understand that you need to know.
- There are things you need to know, and you have no clue that you need to know them.
But here’s the problem: A lot of nonprofit founders and their start-up colleagues overestimate what they think they know, and as a result, remain oblivious to what they really need to know.
So, how do you fix that? Nonprofit startup training and education! Investing in training resources can set you and your growing nonprofit team up for success, regardless of where you’re starting from. Here are five easy steps to help you get on board with nonprofit training and professional development:
1. Recognize that you need education and training. 🤓
This can be the hardest step. After all, you’re starting a nonprofit to solve a problem, not to go to school. Plus, if you didn’t think you knew how to solve the problem, you probably wouldn’t be starting a new organization to begin with!
That may work for your mission (and “may” is important to admit—most nonprofit founders start as amateurs in the topic they want to address, and gain expertise over time), but it's not likely to work for the rest—like accounting, fundraising, operations, human resources, donor management, and more.
But recognition of your need for training is an exercise in motivation.
Some of your team members will be motivated by the vision of positive results. For example, if you took a course on recruiting volunteers, you could get great help with your mission and save a lot of time locating critical support.
Others are motivated by fear. If you don’t recruit (and train!) your volunteers correctly, when one of them messes up, the organization could face major lawsuits. Or, on a lesser note, your nonprofit could suffer from a lack of team-wide productivity.
However, you may even need to make training a requirement for some positions. Regardless of how you approach training (and motivating) an individual for their role, it's important that they do so to reap the benefits of the information presented.
2. Compare your resources with what you need. 🏋️♀️
Even though a founder may drive the process, most nonprofits are started by groups of people. These can include the founder’s friends and family (although that’s not recommended), a group of people impacted by the problem you’re trying to address, or citizens of means and influence who want to help out.
Whoever it is that makes up your startup organization, you have to ask: “what skills do they bring to the table?”
Then, compare that answer with the types of skills you’ll need to run a successful organization, such as accounting, human resource management (including volunteers), revenue generation, marketing, operations, mission service, legal, and more. Even if you think you have something covered (such as having an accountant on board), do they know about the topic from a nonprofit point-of-view? Probably not.
What’s one of your “unknown unknowns”? Nearly all of the disciplines it takes to run a business, which is probably where your core group of founders has their experience, are different for nonprofits! For example, while business law and nonprofit law can be similar, they’re not the same. So even if you find someone who comes with some required skills, they need effective training to ensure they’re ready to serve their nonprofit role.
3. Set a goal, then get digging. 🪴
After you complete your inventory, make assignments for each person’s role in your startup organization. Then, encourage each person to start digging to find nonprofit training resources that will help them fill their newly assigned role.
For example, encourage your team members to ask themselves the following questions: Do I need to know the basics? Am I exploring advanced skills? Is there a specific project that needs a new level of expertise? It’s best if you and your team know these answers before getting started.
Let’s take revenue generation as an example. You know you’ll need some money to get started, and tons more as you begin to move ahead. Notice, by the way, that we’re discussing “revenue generation,” and not “fundraising.” Why? They’re different! Most people you recruit aren’t coming in with experience in fundraising. The good news is that there are dozens of effective methods for raising money—and hundreds of powerful training resources for each.
Once you identify training options, you’re not quite ready to jump right in. You have another step (hint: planning), so you can make sure you’re getting the most out of your training experience.
4. Outline a plan. 📈
Like anything else, your training will be much more effective if you take a systematic approach. Determine your training budget for each individual and what they should aim to get from their learning experiences.
Don’t shy away from paid courses in your plans, either. You can start with free videos, podcasts, eBooks, webinars, and worksheets—then work your way up to paid content as your commitment grows and your budget allows.
Some volunteers might even be willing to pay for their own training, since they’re building life skills to help a cause they care about. However, you’ll likely be expected to provide access to the training resources in question, even for volunteers.
5. Take the courses! 📚
Of course, all of this leads up to actually engaging in the training. For each person, how they participate in the training is as important as the subject of the training. For example, if you force someone to read a book when that’s not how they learn most effectively, then you’ve all but wasted their time.
So what are the options? Feel free to incorporate one or more of the following:
- Videos – Our human preference for visual stimulation based on our bifocal vision makes video a very popular and effective learning method. But because it relies on our sight, it’s not always useful. For example, you shouldn’t try to watch a video on nonprofit leadership on the expressway on your way back from a meeting.
- Podcasts – Audio fills a lot of gaps in our lives. It’s especially useful when you’re doing something physical, like running on a treadmill, and you can use your brain for other functions, like listening to the latest hour-long podcast in a series.
- Books and Articles – Traditional, educational reading can be a highly effective learning method if you can dedicate the time and energy to the technique. To get the most out of it, try reading in parallel with a partner or group, then discuss what you learned. You’ll be surprised at what you missed, and you can offer insights to others on your experience, which will reinforce what you learned.
Regardless of the learning channel you choose, taking courses really isn’t the end. It’s more like “apply shampoo, rinse, repeat.” The most effective learning is ongoing. You won’t make your goal for training immediately. It will take some time.
Starting a nonprofit can be the achievement of a lifetime. The good news is that while your idea and mission may be unique and fill an unmet need for untold people over countless years, you’re not the first person to head down this path. And luckily for you, nonprofit technology can help make the training process seamless and effective.
Opening yourself up and taking advantage of available training resources will move you ahead more quickly. Then you can make your startup more exciting and get you closer to carrying out the important mission you know so many people need. Best of luck!
Matt Hugg is an Educator, ELearning Specialist, Online Trainer, and CEO at NonprofitCourses. As an experienced writer, veteran fundraiser, and sought-after instructor and speaker in philanthropy, fundraising, and marketing, Matt brings a unique perspective to your project.