Change is going to take a change

Nonprofits, like society in general, have faced incredible disruption over the past six months. Their day-to-day work has been impacted by a global pandemic, racial protests followed by a national awakening on racism, economic collapse, and a turbulent election. And the year is not over. Nonprofits were walking uphill in 2019, and that hill just became Mount Everest.

How nonprofits work and the context in which they work must change. To get that change, we—those of us who support nonprofits— are going to have to change. Specifically, we are going to have to change how we approach nonprofit learning. You see, I take an activist view on learning. Learning for me is not just the acquisition of knowledge but the creation of conditions that allow for a sustained change in behavior. Learning results in a change in knowledge, skills, beliefs, and ultimately strategies.

If there was ever a time for nonprofits to experience a change in knowledge, skills, beliefs, and strategies, it is now.

What would it take

Let’s reverse engineer what it would take for nonprofits to experience this seismic shift in how they think and do their work.

Nonprofit Executive Directors, staff, board, and volunteers would need to have access to outcome-based learning and peer connection across their community to sustain a change in how they work. Ideally this would be achieved alongside the foundations that support them so the culture shift runs across the sector.

That would require “train the trainer” initiatives so consultants and experts who train nonprofit people know how to teach as well as they know their content. Learning would be supported by local networks to make space for colleagues to share resources, hold each other accountable, and nudge forward shifts in the work culture that has defined us until now.

That would take nonprofit state associations, sector associations, community foundations, and other convenors of nonprofits being strategic in their offerings and professionalizing how they integrate research-based adult learning into the design and delivery of their programs. Nonprofit people—from EDs to policy advocates—would become fluent in the language of influence, behavior change, memory, and action.


That’s a lot, and I see three barriers in the way:

Education in general suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People outside of education overestimate their expertise in learning, perhaps because we have all been to school or sat in a training. Related, asking people what they want to learn—like asking Executive Directors what they want to learn to improve how they work—assumes a domain knowledge they may not have. They don’t know what they don’t know or need to fundamentally change how they work.

“Upstream” support for excellence in adult learning is not funded by most foundations. Few foundations invest in nonprofit capacity building to start with. When they do, they tend to fund trainings and assume that the trainer will meet some quality standard without support. This is particularly challenging as we work to diversify the pool of trainers. Well-resourced trainers will find the professional development they need to hone their skills; under-resourced trainers may not.

The adult learning field is rich with research-to-practice translators. The nonprofit world needs yet a further step in translation because we work in an open-ended system. While corporate training can build in accountability and oversight, a lot of nonprofit trainings involve learning outside of the institutional setting. Staff or board members attend a workshop offered by a third party—an association, foundation, or United Way—and they go back into their work setting trying to apply new skills without colleagues or mentors to give them feedback or encouragement.

What to do?

Here are my thoughts for nonprofits, their associations, and others working in this space:

  • Declare your commitment to excellence in learning as the driver of change.
  • Budget for investments in delivering on this commitment. You might build a learning strategy, offer “train the trainer” programs, or create a cohort of learning professionals. Nonprofits: invest in learning as a means to finding betters ways to navigate these challenging times.
  • Name the learning champion in your organization. Invest in that person’s professional development. Invite that person to work across programs.
  • Be a part of a larger community of people who believe in the power of learning to create change. There are associations who have taken these steps. There is a community of people working at the intersection of nonprofits and learning. We exist and are a pretty fun bunch, if I might say so.

Change is going to take a change. What change are you going to make?

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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