It’s not unusual for nonprofit professionals to operate out of their depth: on the one hand, they are constantly looking for innovative ways to deal with complex social issues that resist easy solutions. On the other, however, it might simply be the case that they lack appropriate knowledge or skills - in fact, there are circumstances where despite almost complete unpreparedness, one feels compelled (or even pressed) to get a certain job done. There’s just no one else to do it. One way of addressing these knowledge gaps is to learn by doing, to accept experience as one’s teacher. When you try your hand at something you’re prone to develop palpable intuition: one that is grounded on observations and lessons drawn from real cases. Over time, these lessons pile up and become interwoven, composing a sort of roadmap that can be used to drive sound decision-making. But while we agree that experience is indispensable for everyone’s professional development, it is certainly true that it is not the best teacher in every situation.
There are many reasons for that: one is that experience tends to most effectively teach through hardship, and learning what doesn’t work will not necessarily point you in the direction of what actually does. Similarly, negative experiences may prevent you from further exploring fertile - but highly nuanced - territory. Lastly, it goes without saying that learning from the experiences of others is what made humanity come this far: had every generation kept reinventing the wheel, we would not have invented the car. It is by recognizing where experience falls short as a teacher that we will be able to acknowledge where education (broadly defined as any form of enquiry that takes place outside of one’s realm of immediate experience) can be most effectively harnessed for professional development purposes. However, because education is broadly regarded as a positive thing, it’s tempting to overlook some vital considerations about how the learning process interacts with the day-to- day of a working professional, and with that of the organization itself. Here I devise a framework to help organizations effectively employ education for the betterment of their operations.
1. Identify the gap by articulating a claim of causality based on evidence
Sometimes there is a clear deficit in knowledge that needs to be addressed, often reaffirmed by accumulating negative experiences. Take the example of social media management. If an organization repeatedly fails to gain traction among its audiences despite having tried numerous approaches, it might then recognize a pressing need to qualify its staff through training. Often times, however, learning needs seem to be deeply entangled in the practice of one’s job, and are therefore less clearly acknowledged. An employee working directly with social media management may encounter difficulties on a daily basis which may be attributed to a personal lack of preparedness. In both cases there is a gap to be filled - what changes is its status within an organization. Defining such status is not as straightforward a process as one might think at first glance, and yet is vital for devising a productive framework that employs education for the purpose of improving not only the quality of one’s work, but the overall effectiveness of the organization’s operations.
Let’s return to the example of social media strategy. The inability to engage audiences may be composed of several different factors directly related to staff qualification, each requiring specific solutions. Perhaps the photos aren’t good enough, or blog articles are not well written, or the editorial schedule has been poorly designed. Perhaps the content you create is just not relevant to the audiences you target. It is evident that it would be inadequate to look for an answer to the general problem without first breaking it down into manageable pieces. Therefore, first you need to articulate how possible causes are related to the general problem and what evidence can be offered to support your claim, finally listing possible solutions to address such causes. For instance:
Lack of engagement on social media, possibly caused by bad photos (as evidenced by inferior engagement stats in photography-based posts on Facebook) can be solved by training staff in photography techniques.
By formulating a claim, you concretely relate problems arising within your organization with gaps in knowledge, and articulate how they may be attributed to specific people and current practices. Some problems are very easy to identify, such as in the example above; others, however, are entangled, and may span across different departments, involve several people, and consist of multiple gaps. This exercise of decomposing complex issues ensures that specific fractures are pinpointed, that conjectures are made based on evidence, and ultimately, that education/training is elected as the best avenue to solve the problem based on an informed perspective.
2. Consider the practicalities and share the stakes
Once the knowledge gaps are identified and consensus is reached that education or training is the appropriate way to address them, a set of practical questions arise: are your employers expected to invest their own time on pursuing training/education, or will they be allowed to carve out a couple of hours every week from their work schedule? What if it requires travel or periods of absence from the job? If monetary investment is required, will it be provided by the organization? It is important to be mindful of these practicalities even if the employee will not undergo a structured learning process, such as a course or training program. Education is widely available in today’s world and may come in different forms, all of which will require some sort of investment of the part of the learner. Situations where unstructured learning is sought are particularly prone to breed ruptures if not properly acknowledged and handled.
These and other practical aspects must be negotiated directly and openly between the people concerned, and may even open up interesting avenues for positive bonding between organization and individuals (an organization may be willing to underwrite training costs if the employee agrees to invest their own time - a mutually beneficial agreement that concretizes how each side’s compromises works toward the achievement of a collective goal). However, it may also be source of negative feelings (if, for example the employee feels it is unfair to be expected to invest their own time to learn something new in order to perform their job, or if the organization resents the employee for investing working hours in unapproved professional development). Clarity, openness, and agreement are therefore essential factors in defining the mechanism through which organization and employee will both commit, manage, and benefit from this gap-filling process. Moreover, this process should entail more than a simple fine tuning of logistics - it should be a moment where employee and organization agree to share the stakes in the learning process.
3. Do not relegate an employee’s learning process to the backstage
I contend that professional development and the performance of one’s job should not be split from one another, as dressing rooms are from stage. It is by investing in fluid congruence between them that organizations and individuals can benefit the most. The core assertion in simple: any given learning experience, by definition, should remove learners from their comfort zone and present them with ideas, concepts, and practices that challenge their current ideas, concepts, and practices. If not, it would be either superfluous or redundant. However, this process may uncover problems that directly relate to ideas, concepts, and practices currently established in their workplace that are unrelated to them and their work, resting under someone else’s auspices. When this happens, the solution to a problem will require deeper change in the organization.
If the organization is not ready or wiling to enact those changes, it then reaches a serious rupture. That is because education is not, in and of itself, the solution to any problem and organization faces, but rather an avenue to help point to concrete actions that, if enacted, can be reasonably expected to solve the problem at hand. The educated employee, having acquired the knowledge required to identify such actions, has moved away from the organization’s current practices, creating another gap. To close gap by moving the employee closer to the organization means, in effect, ignoring or suppressing the learning process they have undergone. Therefore, congruence between professional development and the performance of one’s job helps ensure that the learning process addresses the core issue it sets out to address and avoid fragmentation within the organization.
Quick case study
Imagine John - recently employed at an organization that sells low cost travel packages designed to provide young college graduates work experience at international nonprofits, John has been tasked with the management of online sales pipelines, with a clear directive of increasing lead conversion. John is himself fresh out of college and after grappling with the task at hand for a few months, notices very little improvement. After talking with the management team, it is decided that John will enroll in a course specifically designed to explore sales strategies for nonprofits. Practicalities have been discussed and agreed upon - everyone is onboard! Here’s the claim they came up with:
Low rates of lead conversion, possibly caused by John’s insufficient knowledge in sales (as evidenced by a few months on insufficient increase in conversion) can be solved by John taking a course in sales strategies.
John is excited - the course covers many interesting modules, one of which prompts him to think about the relationship between unsolicited emails, user responsiveness, and brand management. In this module, it is argued that mass unsolicited emails are cost-effective for the sender, for while the majority of users rarely engage with them, a few do - and despite representing a small percentage, these amass to sizable quantities due to the monumental number of emails sent. However, influential users that identify a certain organization with recurring spam emails are likely to defame it on social media, hurting its reputation and therefore hindering meaningful growth in the long run. In conclusion, despite some benefits that may arise in the short term, unsolicited emails should generally be avoided to ensure positive brand recognition.
John is now in a bit of a pickle - his supervisor had clearly instructed him to collect email addresses of recent college graduates from various listservs and send (unsolicited) promotional emails about their travel packages. John knows that a change in strategy at this point, while beneficial in the long run, is likely to reduce the amount of business done by the organization in the short term. In addition, John does not have the authority to redesign the sales strategy alone. When this issue was brought to the management team, the discussion was tabled. « We can’t afford to lose business » they said; « this strategy worked in the past, perhaps you’re just not doing it right yet ». It will be impossible for John to let go of what he learnt: he now understands how problematic spamming is and how it may hinder the organization’s future. He may actually even feel embarrassed that he himself has to engage with it. His learning process has been relegated to the dressing rooms, and John is expected to go back to the stage and continue his work as if nothing happened and demonstrate the improvement that was expected after having taken the course. However, his studies helped him articulate a different claim to address the original problem:
Low rates of lead conversion, possibly caused by inappropriate lead generation strategy (as evidenced by statistics and cases studied in class) can be solved by adopting a more focused lead generation strategy.
The solution to this claim is no longer education - it is a shift in the organization’s current sales practices. As we have seen, every claim whose solution is education is in fact the outer layer of another set of claims whose solution requires a change in execution. Often times, such change in execution will directly involve other people, interconnected routines, and ultimately call for a deeper reformulation in methods or systems than originally presumed necessary. Organizations must be ready to deal with this event should it be triggered by a learning process - odds are it will. Not doing so would not only defeat the purpose of using education to improve the quality of the organization’s work, but also fail to solve the original problem.
Pedro Branco is a Brazilian filmmaker and educator. Having previously worked as Director of International Partnerships for NYC-based nonprofit Filmmakers Without Borders, Pedro has recently stepped in as remix←→culture's Deputy Director. In addition to working in the nonprofit sector, Pedro maintains a strong presence in academia, having been a founding member of IRIS - the laboratory for visual anthropology at the University of Brasília, awarded the best laboratory of its kind across Brazil between 2010 and 2012.