Back to School!

We’ve all been there — the class, seminar or webinar that, within the first few minutes, is clearly going to be a waste of time. It’s either too basic (for us), not really the topic as advertised, too advanced or just (frankly) too boring.
Even if your company is paying for the training, you invested an hour (or four, or even eight) that you will never get back. And with training dollars tight, you may be sacrificing a more beneficial training to attend one that doesn’t meet your expectations.

I am a big believer in training. I’ve invested in training personally and taken advantage of the times when my employer “sprung for it.” But I’ve also passed some long hours sitting through training that missed the mark (for me). Following are a few lessons I’ve learned about training to help you plan your “course” for the next year.

Choose a format that works for you
Webinars are great — unless you’re easily distracted. Let’s face it; you won’t get maximum value out of the webinar if your screen is shared by the webinar and Facebook. And solitaire isn’t going to enhance the absorption of material for the most part.

Long, long ago — like back in the 1980s — we had one choice for training: on-site. We traveled to a venue, stayed in a hotel (sometimes), were given lunch and two coffee breaks (“fluid adjustment breaks,” as one speaker called them), and were pretty much out of touch with the office unless we wanted to stand in line to use a pay phone.

While face-to-face training may seem so last century, there is still a value to getting out of the office, especially if you are willing to leave your comfort zone and network. Ask questions, probe deeper and request more information, and your time away may be beneficial. But if you’re just going to sit quietly and take notes, the extra cost of being out of the office may not be a good investment.

You can now get certifications and degrees in a fully online format. (Disclosure: I am both pursuing an advanced degree online and teaching in a nonprofit certification course online.) That’s often more affordable and allows flexibility for those of us who travel. But it requires discipline since (usually) assignments can be turned in at your convenience.

Bottom line: There is no perfect training method today. Think about how you learn best and the benefits of the various options. If you want to try a new format (for you), begin with something that has a lower cost to see if it works for you. Your investment — of money and time — will be wasted if you find you can’t truly absorb the material when it’s given in a particular environment.

Read the promotion carefully
Years ago, someone commented that a brochure for a one-day seminar to teach nonprofits how to design brochures and newsletters was so poorly designed, it was nearly unreadable. While the course presenter probably didn’t design the promotion, the poor quality (small type, long blocks of copy and few visual cues to help you move through it) made the contents of the actual training seem suspect.

As you read the course description, ask yourself if it sounds like solid information or if it is it just a bunch of key phrases and buzzwords strung together. Are the takeaways that are promised in line with what you need in your career? Do the speakers have the background to speak out of solid experience? Do you feel adequate time has been allocated for the training, or are they (for example) promising to turn you into a planned-giving expert in four hours?

Given tight budgets, it can be tempting to choose a low-cost alternative, hoping it’s good enough. And often it is, assuming you take the time to evaluate carefully before registering. But “time is money” (a cliché, but true), so don’t hesitate to delay training for a few months to find the best option rather than spending your time on a marginal program.

Have a plan for how you will put the learnings to use
I once worked for someone who thought training was pretty much a waste of time and money. When I finally got approval to attend a multiday conference, I knew I had to come back and “wow” him with the value our organization received for the investment.

My solution was to write up my report on the training (required) but not simply regurgitate my session notes. Rather, I quickly summarized each session and then divided my learnings into one of five categories, each identified with a graphic to make it “jump out” in the report. These categories were: Key Takeaway, Information, Action, Idea and Terminology (four new terms that I didn’t know before the training and suspected my boss wouldn’t know, either).

By sorting my notes into these categories, I not only convinced my boss that the training had been valuable, but I came home with an action plan. My “Action” items were for immediate implementation. “Idea” notes were for further thought and research. And “Key Takeaway” notes helped shaped my strategic thinking.

My system might not work for you, but devise your own system to make what you learn useful — to you and to your organization. This helps justify the training investment, both to your boss and to you.

As you head back to school, remember what Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” Enjoy staying young!

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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