“What makes nonprofit training different?”

It was a challenging question from a friend, and, I confess, it gave me pause.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that training and education in a nonprofit environment is different from training in a business. In fact, it’s all about the nature of nonprofits, why you’re training and who participates in the training.

On the surface, groups of people organized to meet an objective can all look alike, regardless of whether they declared themselves a business, government entity or nonprofit. In some form or another, they all have accounting, information technology (IT) and human resources (HR) functions. However, businesses organize to make money, whether they serve other businesses or sell directly to people. Government agencies organize to provide baseline services for the common good, like roads, public safety and defense.

Nonprofits do everything in between. They provide services that either are not profitable enough to be a business or that don’t serve enough people for the government (such as community theaters or mental health services) or that the government can’t do (such as religious education). Nonprofits start industries (such as higher education and hospitals). They rescue industries (such as journalism). If there’s a cause, there’s a nonprofit — or two or three.

For training and education purposes, what’s different about nonprofits isn’t just about what they do. It’s how they do it. There are three attributes that make nonprofits what they are:

3 Attributes That Make Nonprofits Unique

1. Mission-focused

All nonprofits are mission-focused by nature, whether their mission is to preserve a tract of land and all its wildlife or provide shelter to people on the street. The problem is that a lot of mission-focused activity doesn’t make sense financially — but they carry on, because whatever it is, it’s their mission.

2. Volunteer-driven

From the board of directors down, just about any nonprofit you’ll encounter has volunteers: people who are passionate about the mission and willingly provide their time and skills without financial recompense. The free labor provided by volunteers is a major benefit to any nonprofit’s mission.

3. Charitably Favored

Nonprofits can benefit from almost any revenue source that businesses can, but one that businesses don’t benefit from stands out above the rest: charitable gifts. In fact, in most countries around the world, charitable giving is so encouraged that governments provide tax advantages to people and businesses that support charities.

So, how do these characteristics impact nonprofit training? Let’s discuss four different types of powerful nonprofit education.

4 Types of Nonprofit Education

1. Training on the Mission

Training on the mission of the nonprofit is critical. Some training is mandated; for example, if a nonprofit works with vulnerable populations, like children or the elderly, its state or county may require specific training to protect the interests of the people it serves. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a paid employee or a volunteer; they can’t conduct their work without that training.

This education is in addition to training for licensures (such as for teachers, social workers and psychologists); training on specific mission-related tasks (from firefighting to caregiving to filing documents); and training on the heroic, emotional story of the purpose and history of the nonprofit.

2. Training for Volunteers

People volunteer with nonprofits for a lot of reasons. Hopefully, they all have a passion for, or at least an interest in, the nonprofit’s mission. Beyond that passion, some look at volunteering as a way to build career skills, network between jobs to maintain their social life or repay a benefit they once received. A large number of volunteers give their time because it’s a great diversion from their day jobs.

Regardless of their reason, most volunteers are well intended but not experts in the nonprofit’s mission, so mission training is critical. It could be as basic as making sure that the volunteer answering the phone knows, for example, that alcoholism isn’t a moral failing but a chemical addiction. Or, it could be as sophisticated as training someone to know which species of grasses encourage populations of which types of birds.

To make a nonprofit successful in carrying out its mission, one group of volunteers requires highly specialized training: the board. Nonprofit boards are responsible to the public (and, legally, to the state attorney general) for making strategic decisions that guide the everyday implementation of the organization’s mission. They must see that the mission is well funded and carried out properly and that they appropriately and legally use the funds entrusted to them. And, for most board members, this work is in addition to their day job.

3. Training for Staff

Nonprofits do things differently, and those differences go beyond culture. Nonprofit accounting is distinctive from business accounting, and a nonprofit lawyer had better know about nonprofit law and nuances like how charitable gift annuities differ from the annuity a broker offers. Even HR is different. There’s also training needed for functions that businesses don’t have, like fundraising.

Top among  HR issues is pay. Nonprofits have a reputation for paying poorly, which is sometimes deserved and sometimes is not. This reputation means they attract a lot of people who are just entering or reentering the workforce, which puts nonprofits in a difficult position: On one hand, there’s tremendous pressure from “watchdog” organizations like CharityWatch, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance to put funds toward missions — a contributing factor to low pay. On the other hand, with such a large proportion of inexperienced staff, training demands are high and can be costly. The good news is that there’s a growing availability of free training online to bring even the newest staff members up to speed in no time.

4. Training on Generating Revenue

There’s a saying in the nonprofit community: No money, no mission. Because of the focus on mission activities, revenue generation has a reputation for being a necessary evil. Whether you agree with that reputation or not, however, money is required for a nonprofit to function.

The good news is that there are a lot of ways to raise money for a nonprofit’s mission. Some may surprise you; for example, some nonprofits own taxable businesses or run mission-related auxiliary enterprises. The most tempting — and, to many volunteers and staff members, the scariest — is simply to ask for money, which is known as fundraising.

While they have a lot of similar attributes, nonprofit fundraising and business sales are not the same. For example, the motivations differ. Commissions are considered unethical in fundraising, because they put the fundraiser’s interest above the organization’s mission. Also, fundraisers “sell” (fundraise) a “product” (the mission) that does not directly benefit the “buyer” (the donor). Therefore, the motivation to make a gift differs from the motivation for a purchase decision.

There’s also a lot of confusion about who has the money. For years, Giving USA, The Giving Institute’s annual report on charitable giving in the U.S., has pointed out that more than 70% of giving to nonprofits comes from individuals — even more if you include estates, closely held businesses and family foundations.

As a result, training to help staff and volunteers understand fundraising ethics and to dispel mythologies is paramount. There is also a lot of training on the kinds of asking and giving, whether through postal mail, email or social media, live or virtual events, directly asking for major gifts or estate gifts (known as planned giving), and more.

To answer my friend’s question: Yes, there are a lot of ways that nonprofit training is unique, because nonprofits are unique. By its nature, every mission-driven, volunteer-enabled, charity-funded organization that offers what government and business can’t or won’t, is unique. While businesses, government agencies and nonprofits can all benefit from the same methods of training, it’s why they exist, their opportunities and their problems that make training in nonprofits different.

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