6 steps to improve your staff training – and increase staff retention too


Last week we explored some ground-breaking new research showing that every dollar spent by Australian not-for-profit organisations on training and development has the potential to generate six more dollars in benefits to the organisation.

But even with that knowledge, investing time and money in training and development can be a challenge for many NFP organisations, large as well as small.

So this week we’re exploring the big question of “how?” for NFPs that want to take the next steps.

Dr Ramon Wenzel – a speaker at the 2015 Not-For-Profit People Conference – is the lead author of the report Learning for Purpose: Researching the Social Return on Education and Training in the Australian Not-for-Profit Sector from the University of WA’s Centre for Social Impact.

Here are his 6 tips to help your organisation improve staff training and development:

1. Make training a priority for your whole organisation

In busy, often under-resourced NFPs, staff development needs to be clearly identified as an organisational priority to make sure that it happens.

It’s not just up to the leaders, either. The UWA research says buy-in and commitment from your entire organisation – including front-line staff and volunteers – is needed to make sure the importance of corporate training and development is recognised.

What policies or processes could your organisation put in place to make sure training is enshrined as an organisational priority?

2. Ask for dedicated funding

So, you’ve decided to prioritise workplace development. Where will the money come from?

The research suggests that NFPs need to ask for dedicated funding to promote workforce development. An important part of this is requesting staff development funds in grant applications.

Use research to make the case for seeking funding for development programs. In his forward to the report, Sean Barrett, Head of Origin Foundation, suggests that, given the strength of the report’s evidence, “funders [will] have to review their rules”:

Many corporate and business funders of Not-for-Profit agencies are reluctant to support ‘capacity building’ such as training and development. They insist that every dollar should go towards ‘the mission’ of the Not-for-Profit organisation. This is illogical and does not represent how they operate their own organisations. Investment in training and development is a given within the corporate and business sectors, as is investment in organisational infrastructure.

Leaders in the Not-for-Profit sector can use this report to push back when their attempts at improving efficiency and productivity through training and development are criticised or refused funding.

Even if you aren’t able to secure external funding, there are still some options. For example, the Australian Scholarships Foundation provides free or discounted professional development opportunities to staff at Australian NFPs.

3. Plan smart training programs

As with nearly everything, there is a science to training. The research advises organisations to create a training plan, including spending time deciding:

  • What training is needed;
  • Who needs to be trained; and
  • Which organisational priority the training will serve.

Make sure the training to be provided will address an identified need. You should also decide in advance how your organisation’s work environment can support the training program, to make sure key learnings are implemented, and so the benefits can be shared within the organisation.

It’s also important to clarify what your people expect will be the outcomes from the training. Have an open conversation with the person who is undertaking training to make sure expectations are clear, and that there is a good fit between the person and the training program.

4. Transfer knowledge

New learning is fragile. Managers should make sure there are opportunities for staff to reinforce lessons learnt from training sessions, particularly external ones, in their day-to-day work. The research makes this point very clearly:

“People going through formal learning experiences need to be given the time and support to transfer the training. Trainees cannot return to work with knowledge aplenty just to catch up with all the work that remained unattended.”

The responsibility lies not only with managers, however – staff should also be encouraged to keep learning following their training, to reinforce and build their new skill set. This might involve the staff-member having a conversation with others in their team about the resources, opportunities and support that might be needed to make sure this happens.

And of course, transferring knowledge also means sharing experiences within the organisation. This needn’t be a long process – it could be as simple as a 5 minute report back at your regular team meeting, accompanied by a short “learning summary” written by the person who attended the training.

Documenting processes and learnings is something that can be hard to make time for, but it can be incredibly useful in future. For example, your organisation may save considerable costs if there is sufficient record of the original training so others in the organisation can benefit from the new knowledge or skills, rather than paying for additional course attendance.

5. Evaluate

Given the resources involved, don’t skip over evaluating the training experiences that your staff have.

The research notes that a conversation between the person who attended the training and their manager – or with peers – may be a more effective evaluation process than a written survey.

But the best approach is systematic evaluation. The report suggests that:

Substantial investments in training should be accompanied with a substantive evaluation approach that involves multi-facet pre- post comparisons, and ideally control groups. Together this encourages trainees to reflect, signals to employees that training is important to the organisation, should be used to improve subsequent interventions, and can be showcased to others.

In fact, all training vendors should be asked to systematically evaluate the impact of their services by making evaluation data and findings transparent.

6. Change the public conversation

Finally, the researchers present a bigger picture piece of advice – that NFPs should lead a conversation about the importance, and challenges, of staff development in the sector.

This is no small task, and of course it’s not all up to charities. The study’s authors also want to see buy-in from the people supporting the NFP sector – from grantmakers to government to service-providers – calling on everyone to play their part and help the sector go from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

You can download the full ‘Learning for Purpose: Researching the Social Return on Education and Training in the Australian Not-for-Profit Sector’ report here, or a short summary here.

Does your organisation have a staff development strategy? How do you make it a priority? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below.

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