no professional development funds? no problem!

Although I have worked for nonprofit organizations in various capacities since the mid-1990s, I am still considered in many circles as an emerging nonprofit professional. Although it can vary, the criteria I encounter most often are the number of years employed in the sector, salary and age. Despite the wide spectrum of definitions, the one thing that many Emergents commonly bemoan is the lack of  access to professional development.

One minute, you’re thrilled to discover a conference or meeting that could send your career into hyperdrive, only to have that enthusiasm dashed when you realize that you would have to forgo paying a month’s worth of bills and live on Top Ramen in order to participate.

Challenging? Yes. Impossible to overcome? Absolutely not.

so what has to change?

As Rosetta Thurman noted in her recent post, “The Inevitable Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector”, nonprofits are increasingly behind the curve in providing nontraditional professional development and continuing educational models for its employees. Encouraging the growth and promotion of in-house talent should be a priority, especially as the best and brightest of us increasingly consider dumping the Sector in favor of corporate positions that provide higher salaries and other resources to satisfy our philanthropic passions, or use skills honed in nonprofit organizations to become our own bosses.

While the Sector works on that, Emergents should also take responsibility for their own development, especially if any of the following has occurred:

  • Publicly gnashing your teeth about the lack of development opportunity in the workplace. Counterproductive and earns nothing except being labeled a complainer. Who wants to commit resources to someone like that? 
  • Sitting around waiting on someone to discover how fabulous  you are.  A complete waste of time, unless you prefer fantasy to reality.
  • Whining about others who are moving ahead while you’re “stuck.”  That just makes you a hater.

Believe me, I would not mention these things if I had not done them. Eventually, I had to realize that even if the Nonprofit Sector suddenly provided me with a professional development blank check [a girl can dream] I am still responsible for my career trajectory.

make a way out of no way

Despite what you may believe, you have vast resources literally at your fingertips (hello, Google!). With just a few clicks, I found two blog posts, “11 Tips for DIY Nonprofit Professional Development” by Rosetta Thurman and “Reader Response: Inexpensive Professional Development Resources” by Allison Jones that really informed the way I now approach my career. Both posts are full of great advice, but I found these takeaways most helpful:

  • Embrace social media.  Decide which tools fit your style and use them effectively to advance your career. With Twitter, I began slowly by following people I admire in my field, eventually building up enough courage to start conversations. Use Twitter hashtags to learn what happens at those conferences you can’t afford and follow ongoing conversations about the sector. As I started building contacts on LinkedIn, I discovered  I was more connected than I realized. Seek out your own mentors, search for groups that relate to your interests and do not be afraid to tell folks that you are looking for work.
  • Start a blog.  Whether it’s via WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr, the skills you build researching and writing blog posts are invaluable. Blogging represents your thoughts and expertise in a longer, more detailed format, helps establish your presence and creates a body of written work that you can reference.
  • Check out local universities, libraries and museums. Multi-purpose, multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary, these community centers offer an astonishing  array of free or low-cost lectures, seminars and trainings. Side benefit: quiet places to work and reflect, and access to material culture and technology.
  • Attend webinars. While some can be as pricey as real-life meetings there are still many options for those of us with limited financial means. By the end of this month, I will have viewed presentations about the Smithsonian Institution’s mobile strategy, how nonprofits can use  mission-focused social media and  social media measurement [yeah, it’s all about tech stuff right now!]. Total price: $0.  Tracking all the webinars down can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it. Wild Apricot’s monthly listing  is a good place to start.

My tip: Catch a free ride. It is not likely that in-person gatherings will (or should) disappear completely. Their value in terms of networking and knowledge is undeniable, which is part of the reason why they are so pricey. However, conferences may offer scholarships, fellowships or free registration if you volunteer. Competition for these spots can be steep and it requires a bit of work and advance planning, but you cannot beat the financial and professional payoff.

Have you encountered difficulty finding affordable nonprofit professional development opportunities? Please share any tips, hints & tricks in the comments.