Nonprofit Professional Development

Never Stop Learning - Ongoing nonprofit professional development resources: essential for success!

Never Stop Learning - Ongoing nonprofit professional development essential for success

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
—Socrates, NOT talking about nonprofit professional development ((but he could have been)


Fewer than 20 years ago, the nonprofit sector was a little behind the times. We were the tortoise to the corporate world’s hare, mostly when it came to technology.

Go back further to the early ‘90s and, like most nonprofits, your organization probably had a shiny, but static, website with some pictures, your mission statement, contact info and a big, red DONATE button at the bottom. Maybe at the top too.

If someone thought big at the time and embedded a video, something that actually moved, on the page, you were a little ahead of the game — a visionary, even.

But you blinked and all of a sudden, direct mail was dead. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t

then, isn’t now, never will be.) Email was the thing, and websites were getting interactive.

You blinked again and email fundraising was passed, and we moved beyond even

multichannel fundraising to omnichannel.

And just when you thought you’d implode if you had to learn one more way to connect with donors and raise money … along came text-to-give, crowdfunding, something called bitcoins and then the next big Next Big Thing.


That’s an exaggerated timeline of just the technical side of things. Online or not,

mindsets, relationship building and donor engagement and appreciation continuously morph and mature to keep fertile the ground that feeds all of the engagement mediums.

It used to be that the nonprofit world moved more slowly than the commercial sector when it came to strategy, processes, technology, etc. — although we’ve always been miles ahead of the game when it came to heart. 

Today, we still have the heart and we’ve caught up nicely when it comes to the “head.”

That’s because nonprofit professionals and the organizations that depend on them to serve their mission and to raise the funds to keep things going understand the critical importance of ongoing nonprofit professional development. 

"As a nonprofit professional, especially a fundraiser, you have to keep up. It’s that simple", says Jill Murphy, membership and post operations senior manager at the Society of American Military Engineers.  

“I constantly do professional development programs. This summer I earned a digital marketing certificate. It was a 10-week course and I learned a ton,” says Murphy, who can look at ongoing nonprofit professional development from both sides. 

For seven years she was the senior manager of member services for the DMA Nonprofit Federation and, as such, organized hundreds of professional development opportunities both online and in person for nonprofit leadership and fundraisers.

 “My feeling is if you're not keeping up with what's going on in marketing then you're going to be left behind with how quickly new technologies change the way we market as nonprofits,” Murphy says.

Typically, Murphy takes in a webinar a week on something related to membership, communications or marketing — some weeks more — she says because it’s just that important, even for a longtime pro like Murphy, who has been involved in the nonprofit sector since the mid ‘90s.

“It's become harder and harder to get/keep a member or donor's attention,” she says. “Time is the enemy, but with a limited budget you have to find ways to reach your audience using technology (versus snail mail of old), and there is so much out there now you have to keep learning.”

Call her #professionaldevleopmentfan, Murphy says.

She’s not alone. A report, “State of Nonprofit Professional Development1,” a recent project by NTEN and Cornerstone, uncovered that “nonprofit staff want to learn and grow in their jobs and careers and that they seek to pursue professional development even if it’s not an official part of the expectations and evaluations in their jobs.”


The NTEN/Cornerstone report looked at four areas around nonprofit professional development:

  1. Availability of professional development
  2. Professional development and supervision
  3. Organizational tools
  4. Professional development topics and interests

Among these topics, overall, the report1 found that:

Availability of professional development 

  • “Professional development options are widely available and reasonably well funded. Fully three-quarters of respondents indicated access to professional development, and two-thirds of those had a personal budget of over $500. Availability is not distributed evenly, however, as only 40% indicated that organizational funding is available to everyone.”
  • “Organizations that provide professional development tend to offer a variety of options. While online courses are the most common, conferences, professional memberships, and platform-specific training were all available to over half of respondents. Those that indicated “other” mostly fit into three categories: books/manuals, certifications, and degree programs.
  • “Availability of professional development and funding does not depend on the size of the organization.”
  • “Availability of professional development and funding does not depend on the size of the organization. Larger organizations with bigger budgets understandably provide more funding than smaller ones do.”

 Professional development and supervision 

  • “Over half of respondents indicated that professional development is included in their review and planning process. A slightly larger percentage have specific goals for development than are evaluated on it. A sizable majority of respondents who are evaluated on professional development indicated that this inclusion was meaningful to them. Most of their answers indicated an appreciation that development was taken seriously and considered important by the organization. Those who had mixed responses tended to want more help and structure in figuring out what development goals were appropriate. A similar majority of those who are NOT evaluated on development said that including development in evaluation would be a motivator for pursuing it.”
  • “Over half of respondents indicated that they discuss professional development with their manager. This was mostly true for those who said that development was part of their review or their goals, but not exclusively. Most respondents who discuss development indicated more than one type of discussion. Those who selected “other” tended to indicate more casual interactions and mostly did not have development as part of their evaluation or goals.”
  • “This may look like sharing resources or learnings with other staff, presenting on material learned, or other ways of sharing. For those who participate in professional development activities, about half have a system for sharing what they learn with their co-workers.”
  • “Nearly 90% of respondents feel better able to succeed at work because of their professional development opportunities. When it comes to employment opportunities, over half indicated that they are motivated to stay in their jobs due to professional development, and a similar number would look for professional development support when job hunting.”

Organizational tools

  • “Only 15% of respondents have a tracking system in place for professional development. Three times that amount work for organizations with subscriptions to online learning or development systems, although a third of them do not know how to access the system. There is no clear relationship between the size of the organization and the presence of either kind of tool.”

 Professional development topics and interests

  •  “Most respondents who take advantage of professional development opportunities use a variety of learning types. Free webinars are the most common, used by over 80%. In-person opportunities and printed tools are also very popular.”
  • “About two-thirds of respondents are satisfied with the professional development they receive. This is true regardless of the learning tools they use.”
  • “Respondents show high interest in most of the various learning tools used for professional development. In-person opportunities — both workshops and conferences — are the most popular, but online options and printed materials have strong support as well. Those who responded “Other” indicated mentorships, leadership seminars, and a variety specialized or internal opportunities.”
  • “Most respondents indicated two or more areas of interest. The most popular were job-specific, leadership skills, and project management. Management, digital communication, and fundraising round out the high demand areas. Those who indicated “other” had a wide variety of answers, with data analysis and specific technology skills being the most common.”


Jeff Jowdy, president of Lighthouse Counsel, a Nashville-based fundraising consultancy, has incorporated education blogs and podcasts into the resources the agency makes available because clients have expressed a need for ways to continuously be working on professional development.

“Things change rapidly in fundraising and it's really important for nonprofit leaders to stay on top of trends and strategies, as well as technology advancements, so that they're doing everything they possibly can to create positive experiences for donors and other supporters,” Jowdy says. “An organization that refuses to grow and adapt won't stay healthy for long.

 “Donors have so very many options when it comes to which organizations to support that unless you’re a truly niche organization with a truly unique mission that makes you the only game in town, donors can usually find a number of organizations that support the causes that are near and dear to them,” he says. “Staying on top of their game, staying current is one way for a nonprofit professional to help his or her organization stand out when it comes to engagement and communicating their message.”


There’s a lot to learn and a lot of ways to learn it. Luckily, you are not alone and

you don’t have to look very far, really. Nonprofit professional development opportunities abound in the form of nonprofit fundraiser education webinars, conferences, classes, blogs, books, etc.

Like Socrates said, learning isn’t a static thing. As in life, nonprofit professional development is ongoing, and the resources that support it are critical elements in a fundraiser’s toolbox.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  •  Technology: Are you set up for EFT? No? OK, your donors will wait while you figure it out. Actually, no, they won’t. Donors are busy people, and the easier you make it for them to give, the more likely they’ll be to give and keep giving. Nonprofit professional development helps you stay on top of tech trends and their practical application for your fundraising,

  • But not just technology: Fundraising is about more than just cash transactions. More and more, we’re learning about donor motivation and the psychology of giving, and new insights are being developed all the time. If you want to get donors to give, you first have to get into their hearts and then their heads. That path is rarely straight and pothole free, and it changes often. Ongoing professional development keeps you up to speed.

  • Keep burnout at bay: Fundraising is a tough job. Constantly honing your skills can keep boredom and burnout from setting in.

  • Keep up with the Joneses (Foundation). Like it or not, fundraising is competitive. The United States is the most generous country in the world, but there are more than a million nonprofit organizations here, all vying for their share of the donor dollar pool — and your share as well. The more in tune you are with fundraising best practices, the more your organization can rely on you to help it stand out.

  • Keep the tide rising. As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships. The more keenly aware of best practices — including those concerning ethics —  each fundraiser is, the better it looks for the charitable sector as a whole. Professional, ethical behavior in fundraising helps build donor trust, which results in more generous giving all around.

  • More effective boards. Nonprofit professional education can, of course, focus on a wide array of topics, and one of the biggies is choosing the best board members for your organization and keeping them focused, engaged and busy. Another aspect of nonprofit professional development is the opportunity to give your board something new to do. Board members hate to be, well, bored and might relish the opportunity to learn more about how to make the biggest difference for the organizations to which they dedicate their time and money.

    They also are notoriously ask-phobic, so encouraging them to take part in some fundraising sessions can be a terror-free way to educate them on the art and science of fundraising, as well as help them to understand that people want to give and are just waiting to be asked.

  • Better volunteer management. Another important area for nonprofit professional development is recruiting and working with volunteers. Many, if not most, organizations depend heavily on volunteers for myriad things, from pulling off the annual fundraising gala to community outreach, etc. Their needs change, and the ways we connect with them change. Nonprofit professional development helps ensure that you don’t leave volunteers feeling stranded or neglected.

  • ·Financial growth and responsibility. Nonprofit professionals are passionate, no doubt. And while they’re busy making the world a better place in ways big and small, it’s easy to push aside less noble-feeling needs like, oh, say, financials. Your job description might not require a degree in business or accounting, but professional development opportunities can help you learn enough to feel connected.

  • Versatility. Along those lines, continuing nonprofit professional education can help you learn about all of the aspects of your organization so you can see things holistically and work more effectively within your team. In fact, at nonprofit conferences, it just makes sense to take in a session or two that are out of your wheelhouse just to get a feel for what your colleagues are doing and how you might help.

  • Stay connected. Whether online or in person, nonprofit professional development webinars and conferences allow you to connect and reconnect with your colleagues from within your mission area and others, from your community or from around the world. 

On that last point, Ruby Chadwick, head of global engagement and events for The

Resource Alliance2, says it really doesn’t matter if conferences and other nonprofit professional development opportunities are in person or virtual. 

The Resource Alliance is a global nonprofit that curates content and events — both in person and virtual, both large-scale and intimate — engineered to engage, inspire and mobilize fundraisers, nonprofit leaders and other agents of change around the world.

“It’s amazing to see people coming together year after year, happy to reconnect and

to make new connections,” Chadwick says. “Learning isn’t just about what’s on the PowerPoint presentation or in the session materials. It’s not just about who’s at the microphone or whose name is at the top of the session description. It’s not about rote memorization, just like in school.

“Learning is also about a free exchange of ideas among colleagues, it’s about communication and about commiserating, at times,”  she says. “Even in a virtual environment, professional education sessions allow us to hear from our colleagues and to learn from them every bit as much as from the official speakers.”

Ann Rosenfield, principal with Charitably Speaking in Toronto, points to a session at an Association of Fundraising Professionals Toronto conference that she called a “game changer.” In it, Amy Eisenstein, CEO and co-founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, and Adrian Sargeant, co-director at the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, presented findings from a study, “Major Gift Fundraising: Unlocking the Potential for Your Nonprofit.”4

Among other things, the study highlighted the importance of ongoing professional development for nonprofit professionals, citing that training/education is associated with an increase of $37,000 in income.

“The role of training and development is critical. A strong correlation was found between the range of training and educational opportunities afforded to staff and overall fundraising performance,” the study found. “While many nonprofits will not invest in staff development because they fear individuals will leave and the monies will be wasted, survey results highlight how mistaken this approach is.

“Formal education and certification opportunities appeared to have the strongest relationship with fundraising success,” it found. “While attendance at local events/conferences can be a helpful component of a staff development program, nonprofits would be wise to also consider providing support for more formal forms of study, such as a certificate or diploma in fundraising and/or a certification, such as the


Says Rosenfield: “The stat on the association of training/education with an increase of $37,000 in income makes the case for professional development.”


One fascinating case study that comes courtesy of the IFC2 is that of AfriKids, a London-based organization that protects the rights of children around the world. It took its learnings from various nonprofit professional development opportunities to raise more than five times its fundraising goal.

The AfriKids team learned about the proper stewardship of donors and completely changed the messaging for a match-opportunity appeal toward a more value-led and emotional storytelling narrative.

The results of AfriKids’ bold departure from its comfort zone was a campaign that raised a total of £625,000 (roughly $735,000) — £580,000 (roughly $682,000) of which was matched by the government. So, in total the campaign brought in £1.2 million, or roughly $1.4 million — a full five times AfriKids’ fundraising target.

The money raised was used to improve the level of education in 80 primary schools in Northern Ghana through teacher training, as well as to educate communities on the importance of education. In all, the training positively impacted 18,000 children and 350 teachers.

Closer to home, Mercedes Brown, the manager of individual giving at Dallas Theater Center in Dallas, Texas, says that one of the many free CharityHoTo webinars she’s attended made all the difference when it came to not only putting a monthly giving program into place at her organization but also getting buy-in from leadership.

“I wanted to do recurring monthly giving at my organization, and I wasn't sure how to start,” she says. “This webinar was super helpful, and the presenter gave good tips to persuade the board and our finance department why it would be beneficial going forward.

“I made sure to screenshot all the statistical numbers and all her resources and references so I could then research even more so I could say, ‘“Look, this is proof that we should be doing this,” Brown says.


Individual professional development aside, lessons learned through nonprofit conferences, webinars, podcasts and other mediums can have far-reaching effects as well.

Many organizers, in fact, encourage attendees to take their learnings back to their organizations to share with colleagues. Some even encourage them to share with other nonprofits in their areas. This seems especially common when the audience includes fundraisers from areas throughout the world where nonprofits are small, hyperlocal and often isolated.

Part of the conditions of a scholarship that Nepalese fundraiser Rewati Dhakal won to attend IFC trainings7 was that he share his learning with other nonprofit workers in his community.

To honor that condition, Dhakal took his learnings and did something extraordinary: He started his own conference. One hundred and twenty people showed up for the inaugural Philanthropy Beyond Fundraising conference in 2019 – the very first conference for fundraisers in Nepal. They spent their time sharing stories, challenges and solutions and, for the first time, enjoying the uplifting company of people just like themselves – dedicated agents of change determined to make a difference.

“Before this, there were no motivations for fundraisers in Nepal,” Dhakal explains. “It was not even recognized as a career.”

Dhakal’s efforts helped to grow fundraising in Nepal into a cohesive, sustainable system and boost the culture of giving not only for individual fundraisers and for individual organisations, but for the country, as well.

“I want to empower the younger generations of fundraisers to support more impactful and ethical fundraising,” Dhakal said.


Lighthouse Council’s Jowdy stresses the importance of ongoing professional development for nonprofit leaders in particular, suggesting they make the most out of education options that stay out of the weeds and focus on the bigger picture.

“It all trickles down from there,” he says. A leader who has lost his desire to learn and remain relevant will lead teams right over the edge of mediocrity. And in today's environment, mediocrity is just not acceptable.

“These folks won't be tuning into podcasts about, say, creating engaging posts on the trendiest social media sites, although there's a place for that kind of professional development for nonprofits,” he says. “Rather, they want and need to learn about empowering their staff, inspiring loyalty and other big-picture challenges.”


Giving USA reported early in 20212 that, “American individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations gave an estimated $449.64 billion to U.S. charities in 2019, placing it among the highest years ever for charitable giving.”

There are lots of reasons for that, but chief among them is the fact that donor trust, which had been on the downswing not that long ago, is on the rise. There are lots of reasons for that too, but chief among those is the professionalization of fundraising.

Nonprofits are focusing more than ever on transparency, accountability, diversity and equity and other factors that help make the giving public more comfortable with giving. And aside from the mechanics of nonprofit work, ongoing nonprofit professional development can also keep nonprofit staff versed in the best ways to hit the mark on all of those points.

In light of national (and even global) discussions around  social justice that were in the spotlight in 2020 and into 2021, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have taken center stage in how businesses and nonprofits operate, how they staff, how they present themselves and how they mitigate decades of inequity.

It might be hard to imagine that the way one person at one organization conducts him- or herself can have the far-reaching consequences that it does. But it does.

The more aware, competent and ethical each individual staffer at a nonprofit, the more favorably that nonprofit is perceived by its constituents, donors and other stakeholders. And the more nonprofits that are perceived favorably, the healthier, more professional and more trustworthy the sector is, which is better for nonprofits overall.

With more than a million nonprofit organizations in the United States, those whose fundraising will keep them afloat are those whose fundraisers work with a balance of the brand new and the tried and true, with transparency, accountability, ethics and equity underscoring all that they do.

Ongoing professional development for nonprofit staff is the key to keeping ahead of the curve.

In its report “Thoughts on 21st Century Fundraising3,” the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy outlines the growth of the fundraising profession, saying, “Compared to 20 years ago, there is more research and literature related to fundraising. Today there are more educational programs at the collegiate and graduate level related to nonprofit management, fundraising and philanthropy.

“There is greater concern over, and clarity around, ethical behavior related to fundraisers,” the report says. “And professional, continuing education programs continue to grow and develop.”

The report says many more young people are choosing fundraising as a first career compared to 20 years ago and fundraisers are staying in their positions longer, four years for women and five years for men compared to 3.31 and 4.42 respectively in the mid‐1990s.

A lot can happen, especially in the area of technology, in three to five years,

so inertia can be deadly to a fundraiser’s career and an organization’s mission.

Ongoing nonprofit education keeps organizations nimble

Ongoing education for fundraisers and nonprofit leaders can help practitioners — and subsequently the organizations they work for — stay nimble. And that’s important. It’s tough to address new challenges as they arise if you aren’t fully aware of the options you have for doing so.

Emergencies, both internal and external, everything from natural disasters, to leadership changes, to scandals and, yes, a pandemic and beyond shine a bright light on this  issue.

When the unexpected happens, organizations that are up to date and ready to turn on a dime are able to respond — and recover — most quickly. When there is a lot of learning to b e done on the fly,  organizations with staff who stay on top of things through ongoing nonprofit professional development have the advantage.

In the, Giving USA 2021 Nashville Briefing4 hosted by Lighthouse Counsel in which The Giving Institute presented the findings of the its Giving USA 2020 report, panelists agreed, saying that organizations of all sizes and missions would do well to maintain and sense of nimbleness, responsiveness and creativity so0 they’re ready to take action in the face of any emergency or calamity.

Ongoing professional development can help get them there.

​​Mary McPherson, CEO at Oakville Hospital Foundation in Toronto, mentions a session about data-driven decision making at an AFP session she attended in 2018 lead by Canadian researcher Celeste Waterman.

“It really pushed our digital capabilities,” McPherson said. “We were very thankful

when the [coronavirus] pandemic hit that we implemented tactics in 2019 that set us up beautifully for pandemic-era fundraising.”


Fundraising can be a lonely business … especially in a small organization where the development director — when there is one — does it all. Ongoing professional development can help mitigate that.

The sense of camaraderie, the kinship that lies at the heart of the social-impact community can be a critical component in the tool kit of successful fundraisers and nonprofit leaders — lifting them up, supporting them and connecting them to the collective creativity and passion of their peers from around the world.

That’s what Jovana Djeri, head of sustainable development at the Ikamva Labantu Charitable Trust, learned from attending IFC7 events and using its online resources. Her organization offers social programs to ensure a brighter future for children, youths and seniors in South Africa.

“As a result of what I learned, I became an empowered, self-confident and  strengthened fundraiser,” Djeri says. “My ability to turn around a major corporate donor to redirect a 1 million rand (roughly $66,000) donation to our seniors program is evidence of my new confidence to negotiate with donors.”

After a disappointing fundraising campaign, Djeri and her colleague, Ronell Jordaan, began attending professional development events and found support, inspiration and education that were  immediately and tangibly reflected in their work.

As a direct result, Ikamva Labantu’s seniors program grew from 2.5 million rand to 12 million rand in five years (roughly $167,000 to $804,000). That growth enabled the trust to sustain its seniors program, which serves 1,500 elderly adults in 21 townships around Cape Town, and to build a pre-school in the impoverished township of Delft to help children avoid having to learn in a shack.

Both Djeri and Jordaan credit their professional development with giving them stronger sense of purpose and belonging.

“Now I see myself as part of a group of dynamic professional individuals working in this sector,” Jordaan says. ‘It’s very affirming, and I feel like a changemaker, not just someone begging for money. It also helped to reference learning internationally, which has been enormously validating.”


The key for nonprofit leaders and fundraisers is to never stop learning. And luckily, there are many ways to continue your education and professional development.

 “So many fundraisers and others in the nonprofit arena are hungry for knowledge, from the most basic strategies around writing a direct-mail piece to the highest level strategizing, no matter if it’s their first year in the sector or their 31st,”  IFC’s Chadwick says. “When you’re in a profession as important as this, how can you not be? How can you not continuously hunger for knowledge when your knowledge and how you use it can be a huge part of feeding families or saving animals or bringing fresh water to communities or whatever it is you’re working toward?

“A lot of it is learned by doing, but professional development opportunities are really important elements of a nonprofit professional’s career,” she said. “Those who don’t have that hunger and desire to grow and learn and advance in their professional development are maybe in the wrong field or have been in it too long. When you stop learning, you stop being an asset to your organization and the people and causes it serves.”

At CharityHowTo, we are all about helping nonprofit professionals continue their all-important professional development to turn learnings into real results. Check out some of our free webinars with some of our top nonprofit experts to get started



  1. All findings and graphics listed here come directly from “State of Nonprofit Professional Development” produced by NTEN and Cornerstone. NTEN reports support the growth and development of the sector through benchmarking the technology goals and challenges of nonprofits, and identifying areas of need; Cornerstone is a global leader in cloud-based learning and human capital management software. You can download the report here.
  2.  IFC, hosted by The Resource Alliance
  3. Giving USA 2020, “Thoughts on 21st Century Fundraising”
  4. Research: Small Nonprofits Can Raise Major Gifts!
  5. Giving USA 2021 Nashville Briefing, hosted by Lighthouse Counsel.

Topics: nonprofits, Nonprofit Professionals