Securing and maintaining unrestricted funding for professional development has proven to be difficult for nonprofit leaders. Our traditional sources of general operating funds—that typically support professional development—have diminished over the past six years, prompting many organizations to cut back on PD support. And while there are low-cost ways to provide support for your employees so that they flourish, it never hurts to be able to provide ongoing access to great opportunities for your staff. I have found that the most successful ‘magicians’ of funding for professional development have had three main tricks up their sleeves.
Find businesses that can partner with you on providing PD support
I have a mantra when it comes to business partners: “Ask for money, you get advice; Ask for advice, you get resources.” We should be more strategic in how we conduct corporate relations. Typically, the relationship between a nonprofit and a business is diluted to an annual solicitation and event, so I am suggesting that businesses be approached as true long-term partners. Businesses can be a consistent source of career learning opportunities for your staff. Give your business partner a call and ask them to make you aware of any upcoming professional development trainings (for example, on project management) that your staff can sit in on.
You can also ask them if they can sponsor one of your staff persons to attend a relevant external conference or workshop with their team. If you don’t currently have a business partner, then identify a few and contact their HR Director. Be as specific as possible, outlining your PD needs by function (financial, project management, IT, etc). Ask them how they determine their PD offerings for the year and would they consider including your staff to join them throughout the year. Approach your new partner as a ‘mentor’. Ask for advice often. Get in the door and bring your professional development (PD) needs with you.
Leverage web-based tools
There are at least a dozen online learning institutes that are less expensive than having to send your staff offsite and many of them are free. My favorite source of PD webinars is Techsoup, home of free and discounted software, hardware and licenses. In addition, over the past two years, Bank of America has hosted its Impact Series (live and web based) in conjunction with community foundations. One of my clients had Home Depot to donate their web conference studio to them to record a catalog of professional development webinars focused on technology. Try this tactic: Partner with a few complementary organizations, develop a simple curriculum (key skills you’d like your staff to develop and ideas on who can help lead sessions) and then take it to your business partner for sponsorship. They are likely to throw in their space and a small honorarium for a local expert to conduct some of the instruction. The created library of learning materials can be accessed by any of your employees online at any time in the future.
Target grants that WILL help you with PD
This isn’t an alternative approach, but rather an alternative way of thinking about funding. Don’t fish in the Atlantic Ocean for professional development funding by targeting big foundation names far from your hometown. Begin looking for grants in your local pond. Community foundations are great sources for technical assistance and capacity building grants. Contact them and discuss the best way to position your PD needs. Additionally, community foundation program officers often have relationships with program officers at other foundations; ask them for introductions.
Corporate and private foundations with offices in your city are easier to approach for advice about how to customize your operating grant proposal. They literally share your zip code and are agents in your community. Make good use of the ‘open door policy.’ In addition, they tend to fund more PD because they value your capacity beyond program operations as a community partner. Pay attention to which of them tend to sponsor local conferences: if they invest marketing dollars to support conference/workshop-based learning, then they are a great prospect. The best resources to begin to identify the funders in your community can be found online at the Foundation Center.
Professional development support is not impossible to obtain for your organization. It will, however, require a disciplined approach to establishing and nurturing relationships with other organizations in your community. You will also find more success by being open to non-traditional PD methods.
As a trusted advisor for the nonprofit and corporate giving community for the past 16 years, Quinetha’s focus has been on creating diverse revenue sources. Her specialty is creating financially sustainable charitable organizations through earned income business models, grants and ‘smart’ public/private partnerships. Connect with her around the web: About.me/quinethafrasier, socialmissionarchitects.com, @smaadvisors, and Facebook: Ask Me About Grants.