Why have a learning strategy

Change will come when we enlist our research-based, strategically-aligned learning resources in support of the goals we have for our organization and sector.

Nonprofits are important. Their success matters to whole communities, states and even countries, yet they struggle to adapt to new needs and conditions. Something has to change. Change, namely cognitive and behavior change, is the domain of people working in learning and development. They know how to close gaps between where people are now and where they want and need to be to fully thrive. When an association or nonprofit support organization implements a learning strategy, it leverages its collection of learning programs and tools to better achieve its organization and sector goals.

Nonprofits are important yet face challenges

Our communities rely on nonprofits to provide key services, enrich our lives through the arts, and protect our rights and those of the most vulnerable. The 1.3 million charitable nonprofits in the U.S. create community to serve community, a vital part of our democracy. Nonprofits shape spaces in which all belong, leading efforts to expand equity and inclusion. For the health and vitality of our communities, it matters that nonprofits in all communities across the country are strong and ready to serve.

Yet nonprofits face what seem to be insurmountable challenges. We want to imagine a day when nonprofits are ready and able to transform how they serve their communities, yet around 50% have less than one month of operating reserve. We yearn for a time when nonprofits are leaders in decision-making because they know so much about people they serve, yet less than 3% engage in lobbying, an important tool in how public policy gets shaped. We know solutions are more effective when we solve hard problems through broad collaborations, yet the way funding happens makes partnerships hard to sustain. We know what success looks like and can see it around the bend, yet we never quite make the turn. Something needs to change in order for a new paradigm to take hold.

A learning strategy creates alignment for greater impact

Change is what learning is all about. When it comes to the workplace, learning is shorthand for whatever it takes to transform an individual from where they are now to where they want and need to be to succeed. An effective learning program goes beyond knowledge and skills. It solves problems, removes barriers to action, and improves performance. It does this through a collection of programs and tools, including:

  • Workshops and webinars
  • Conferences
  • Local learning networks
  • Train the trainer programs
  • Online learning videos and tools
  • Online libraries of templates and sample documents
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Pre-/post-learning communication strategies

A learning strategy is a road map that aligns learning knowledge, programs, and tools across an organization to make it more effective in achieving its goals. A learning strategy supports the cognitive and behavioral change aspects of an organization’s larger strategy. A learning strategy helps people to do things differently over time.

Research helps us prioritize activities in our learning strategy

So often people involved in adult learning are “accidental teachers.” They find themselves running a training department or writing curriculum without formal education on how adults learn. They are susceptible to falling for what we now know to be learning myths: learning styles, 70-20-10 model, and anything based on people having the attention span of a goldfish. (No, it is not true that people learn according to their preferred learning style. We can focus longer than a fish on something worth our time.) There is a world of research that we can integrate into our learning strategies to make them even more effective. For example:

Imagine how powerful if would be if we designed learning strategies based on what we know moves people to learn, remember, and take action. Imagine how effective our organizations would be in building legislative support, raising more money, and changing how they collaborative with others if they mastered memory, influence, and change. The process for building a comprehensive learning strategy for an organization creates space for cross-program collaboration and learning. 

We want change for our nonprofit organizations. That change will come when we enlist our research-based, strategically-aligned learning resources in support of the goals we have for our organization and sector.

With gratitude to the National Council of Nonprofits’ “Nonprofit Impact Matters” report for data about the importance and challenges of nonprofits.


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Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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