Nothing Personal

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 1st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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“Is this personal or professional?” asked the executive director of a multi-million dollar nonprofit of his direct report as he questioned a check request for less than $100 for a multi-session professional development program she planned on attending.   The announcement of the series had been sent to  to executive directors who were asked to share it with appropriate staff, and was offered by a very well-recognized management support organization dedicated to improving the operations, management and governance of nonprofits so that those organizations  can become stronger and better at delivering on their mission promises.  Hello, Executive Director? What don’t you get?  Where do you see personal in an effort to become a better organizational leader.

Contrast that with the executive director of a small organization who has sent three different employees to participate in this series of programs over the last three years,  and you see those who get it and those who don’t.

Effective professional development cannot help but lead to personal growth and development, no doubt about that.  But I know very few people who select professional development opportunities expressly to obtain personal development, as the options for the latter far outnumber—and truth be told, far out-excite–the former.   So, how would you disentangle the professional from the personal?  Better yet, why would you even bother?

Far too many leaders at nonprofits see professional development as a risk they aren’t willing to take as opposed to an opportunity to empower and enable their employees and to show appreciation and respect.  Time and time again, I hear senior managers explain their unwillingness to provide professional development opportunities to staff this way:  “Why should I spend money to send a staff member to a professional development event when she’ll  just use to get a better job?”

What does this say about the culture of the organization or the sector as a whole?   It says we are not a learning community, we don’t value our employees, we don’t believe in growth and new perspectives, etc.  It says we are a scared little (having nothing to do with size and everything to do with mindset!) organization that doesn’t believe our employees are here for the mission but simply for the pay check; thus, they are always looking for better compensation and will leave at a drop of a hat.  And yet everything about the nonprofit culture says that is hardly how most of us behave.

Most of us in the sector chose our place of employment because of its mission; it is the mission that holds our loyalty, not the paycheck.  How many of those people do you think would run just because the organization had the audacity to invest in them? to show appreciation by giving them the opportunity to grow, to learn new and/or better ways of doing their mission work, of thanking them for their work?

The Nonprofit Finance Fund just released its 2011 State of the Sector  Survey that finds that 85% of nonprofits surveyed anticipate a slight to significant increase in demand for their services in 2011.  This is on top of 77% having already experienced a slight to significant increase in demand for their services in 2010.  How will these organizations take care of its overtaxed staff?   A bit fewer than twice as many (32%) are planning on giving raises in 2011 than are planning on freezing or reducing salaries (18%), while essentially equal amounts (9% and 8%, respectively) are planning on improving benefits as reducing them.  One-third is planning on increasing the use of volunteers to pick up the slack.

In these tough economic times, where employees are overworked and underappreciated, giving them opportunities for professional development might just be the best the best thing you can do for the organization.  It isn’t personal;  it’s business.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.