Last fall, PNP Staffing Group’s annual nonprofit salaries and staffing trends report found for the first time that “a significant number of nonprofit organizations encountered a ‘skills gap’ in recruiting their workforce … [reinforcing] the continuing need for improved training programs and professional development to not only recruit, but to retain, talented executives.” The report also found that in the nonprofit sector, as in corporate organizations, investing in employees’ learning and development is a best practice for making an employer “a ‘go to’ place to work.”

In nonprofits, as in business, leadership development programs result in a high ROI, but in this sector, they also produce results such as more mission impact and stability, according to James W. Shephard, Jr., CEO and co-founder of AchieveMission. But, Shephard writes, it takes “courageous leadership” to create “a deep pool of talent and ready successors,” particularly in an industry where organizations are often operating with limited resources and where “being indispensable is in many ways much more comfortable.”

However, as Simon Mont, an organizational design fellow at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, wrote last year, a “myopic view of leadership” focused on “either a single individual or a small group” keeps organizations from seeing “the leadership qualities exhibited on a daily basis by people in all positions.” The Special Olympics, for example, a global organization, provides leadership development through the Special Olympics Leadership Academy for staff and volunteer leaders at all levels and athlete leaders with intellectual disabilities.

The program starts with a face-to-face, three-day workshop. Then, participants develop an action plan and implement the plan over one year with the support of online content through Skillsoft’s Percipio platform, which includes microlearning in the form of e-books, audiobooks, video and other content. “As an events-based organization,” notes Olga Yakimakho, director of leadership and organizational development at the Special Olympics, “sometimes it’s hard to catch our coaches or our sports directors in the office.” That’s why mobile content is particularly important for their leadership training. She also says online on-demand learning, especially videos, is a great fit for the athlete leaders; as individuals with intellectual disabilities, the ability to learn at their own pace is important.

Serving multiple stakeholders in this way is sometimes a challenge for nonprofit organizations, notes Robert Skelton, chief administrative officer at the American Society of Association Executives – not just for training professionals but for other leaders as well. That’s why, when training nonprofit leaders and high-potential employees, it’s important to help them develop those interpersonal skills, whether it’s through formal training or by sharing best practices with other organizations. “I think nonprofits do that particularly well,” Skelton says: “learning from each other.”

With the limited resources nonprofits often face, it’s important as an HR or training manager to manage cost and time effectively. Skelton recommends taking advantage of on-the-job learning as much as possible. Nonprofits, he believes, are ideal for practicing leadership skills; “they may not have the resources or the ability to do more traditional … training, but [when] you’ve got to get the mission done, and somebody’s willing to jump in and actually do it … it’s hard to beat that kind of hands-on training.”

Measurement is important in any type of organization, but perhaps especially in a nonprofit organization, which must report on finances and impact to grantors and other stakeholders. While most organizations, Skelton says, are trying to keep their administrative costs (like training) low to appeal to donors, “the smart donors” understand that employees must be well trained in order for the organization to accomplish its mission.

Potoula Chresomales, senior vice president of product management at Skillsoft, says that organizations can track metrics such as productivity and benefit-to-cost returns using platforms like Percipio, and Yakimakho says the Special Olympics has used them in reports to donors.

Ultimately, though, nonprofit organizations are all about mission, and Skelton says the key to developing effective nonprofit leaders is instilling servant leadership. “The best nonprofit leaders are servant leaders” who want and strive for what’s best for their team members, their organization and the people the organization serves. Whether the organization is accomplishing that goal through coaches and athletes, like the Special Olympics, or through another mission, leadership development is key to a sustainable and successful nonprofit.

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