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Plugged-In Learning: May Question of the Month Results

Staff training is often one of the first expenses to go when a nonprofit's belt needs tightening. No matter how necessary such cuts are in the short term, foregoing training can damage a nonprofit in the long run. The organization loses out on new ideas, networking opportunities, and possibly even staff if employees move to situations that offer professional development as well as mission-driven work.

Technology provides one answer to this dilemma. Nonprofits are offering—and taking advantage of—on-line learning. Some institutions provide lengthy courses for degree credit. Others present short Web-based seminars known as "Webinars."

To find out how prevalent on-line learning is in the sector, the May Question of the Month asked, "Have you ever participated in on-line learning offered by a nonprofit?"

What You Told Us

Although the majority (53 percent) of participants said that they had not participated in on-line learning and another 3 percent were not sure, an impressive 44 percent said that they had. The topics the latter group learned about on-line included animal welfare, low income housing tax credit compliance, literacy, indirect cost calculation, board development, and grant writing.

Respondents listed several benefits to on-line learning. One is cost effectiveness. Many on-line courses and Webinars are offered for free or for a relatively modest fee. Plus, as Marcia Kaye of Faith In Action of Adams County found, "I can do it from my office without the expense or time of travel and ... more individuals from our organization can participate."

Ellen Powley of FoBAS (Friends of Bloomfield Animal Shelter) cited the expanded access that Webinars provide: "These sessions are an excellent way to not only see and hear a topic lecture, but to have online, real time interaction with participants across the country and the presenter."

Rebecca E. Hunter has taught two on-line fundraising courses for the master's degree program at North Park University in Chicago. "I daresay that the students work harder in an online class because they must communicate their learning and demonstrate mastery completely electronically," she observed. The effort pays off, however: "Their final projects are so well done that they make presentations to the nonprofit they studied with recommendations gleaned from their learnings. The students end the course with real accomplishments that are immediately applicable to the third sector."

On-line learning can present challenges. Charlie Johnson of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County found the course he took "worthwhile and interesting" but noted that there "were some technical problems." An anonymous participant commented, "When I volunteer I like to learn the 'hands on' way. I don't think online would be as effective." Another anonymous respondent stated that it was "hard to verify if the information was correct. Tend to stick to the ones who are HONCode Certified."

Resources for On-line Learning

So where can you find on-line learning opportunities? One source is Charity University, sponsored by Charity Channel. Topics range from boards to fundraising to accounting, and classes can count toward CFRE certification or recertification. Click here for more information.

Other nonprofits also offer on-line courses or Webinars (the following is by no means a complete list, and inclusion in it does not constitute endorsement by GuideStar):

To find other on-line offerings, try an Internet search on "nonprofit webinars." Some of the hits will be for events that have already occurred, but if you find one that you wish you'd attended, see if the sponsor will be offering future learning opportunities.

Finally, a number of for-profits that provide services to nonprofits, such as Auctionpay and Convio, offer free or inexpensive Webinars. (Again, this list is—obviously—far from complete, and inclusion in it does not constitute endorsement by GuideStar.) Check their Web sites for more information.

Suzanne E. Coffman, June 2007
© 2007, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
Topics: Law and Regulations