Managing Employee Development in a Non-Profit

By Shelly Trent

History of Workplace Career Development

Historians have found that the first employment screening assessments may date back to 1115 B.C. in China. The apprenticeship system began in ancient Greece and continued into the Middle Ages. When the world began to move from agriculture to manufacturing, the concern was to develop methods to make production more efficient. After World War I, organizations discovered that well-treated employees working in good conditions seemed to work harder. By the 1960s, it seemed the opposite may have been true; better working conditions did not necessarily mean employees worked harder. Researchers discovered that employees had individual needs and motivators, in order to be a better worker. Today, organizations realize that well-treated and well-trained employees make for a more productive and highly skilled workforce.


Approaches to Employee Development

As a human resources and career development professional, I have worked in several non-profits where funding was scarce or non-existent for employee development. I learned quite a few approaches to offer meaningful development opportunities to employees that would cost the organization time rather than a line item in the budget. Below, I have briefly outlined some of the methods. Because the typical non-profit usually offers a lower salary and fewer benefits than for-profit organizations, it can be more difficult to recruit and retain employees and fully engage them in their work and in the organization's mission. These methods could lead to better educated and appreciated employees, which in turn helps them perform better at work.


Internal Development Discussions and Mentoring

Sometimes, something as simple as a manager meeting casually with employees individually to discuss their professional goals can go a long way. This should not be done in the same way as a performance review. It could be more informal, maybe over coffee or lunch. Asking employees about their goals for the future, whether related to the current job or not, shows a personal interest in them that will likely be important to the employees. These discussions could move further into mentoring relationships. While it may not be appropriate in some organizations for a manager to mentor his or her own employees, managers in other departments could mentor employees who do not work under them. This also allows managers to get to know the skills and interests of staff across the board.


College Admissions Assistance

Another way non-profits can assist employees with career development is by offering short sessions in the workplace about going back to school. You might invite local college admissions counselors to visit the workplace to answer questions and walk employees through the process of starting or finishing college or beginning a graduate degree. Even if your organization cannot pay tuition reimbursement, you are still encouraging learning and are helping employees get started on that path.


Information Sessions and Job Rotation

You might also consider holding an annual meeting where all staff members get together to give an update about what projects are happening in other departments and how others can help. Sometimes, employees may want to help out in another department on a project to increase their skills or learn something new. This allows the employee to experience what it might be like to work in a different area of the organization. These activities also prepare employees for increased responsibility.


Individual Development Plans and Succession Plans

Your human resources staff could assist employees in creating individual development plans that are two-fold. One part of the plan could be internal and include developmental activities to keep their skills updated for their current role and to give them goals for the job. Another part of the plan could include developmental activities to help employees move up to another position of interest. This could become a succession plan for the organization. Having a formal succession plan where employees have an opportunity to prepare for promotions over a period of time is a win-win situation. The organization has an engaged employee who is working to develop skills for the next position, and the employee has a promotion to work toward. Having something to look forward to entices employees to stay, rather than seek employment elsewhere.


Outside Training

Some professional trainers are willing to provide low-cost programs for non-profits. Some are also willing to present at no cost for a referral to another organization to get experience and/or exposure to new audiences. Depending on your employee needs, training could be on topics such as:



If you are unable to secure a presenter without a fee, consider partnering with other non-profits in your area to share the costs. All employees from these organizations can attend the training and learn from each other as well.


Lunch and Learn Events

Almost everyone takes a lunch break! Once a month, book a meeting room and allow employees to present their own classes for each other. Some topics might be work-related—for example, an employee who is a seasoned platform speaker might teach internal classes on reducing presentation anxiety. Other topics might be just for connecting with other staff members, such as a class on cooking or baking, scrapbooking, yoga, wellness, weight loss, how to use Excel or PowerPoint, etc. You might also consider a book-of-the-month club where employees agree to read a book related to work and then meet to discuss it. Encouraging employees to train each other also allows them to build skills in teaching, curriculum development, and public speaking.


Cautions and Benefits

Be sure that your training and succession planning activities are open to all employees without regard to any protected class: race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, familial status, disability, veteran status, or genetic information. Also, be sure that your training and development plans are based on your organization’s goals and strategic plan.


Training and development of employees in a non-profit, where there is not a lot of money to spend on these activities, can be successful at a low cost or no cost. These activities will help you retain your most valuable employees and will help your staff members succeed in their jobs, which in the end benefits your non-profit organization.


Shelly TrentShelly Trent, SPHR, is a Field Services Director in the Southeast Region for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) where she has worked since 2000. Shelly’s background includes human resources, college career services, and business and industry training. Shelly is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources and obtained her master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in HR. She completed Ph.D. coursework at the University of Louisville in human resources development and career counseling. She can be reached at Shelly.Trent@shrm.org.

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