Building an Engaged Nonprofit Team by Creating a Culture of Learning

Note: This blog post is a summary of Jim McKeown’s talk of mCon’s Directors Forum, 14.2.2020.

Please view his presentation in combination with reading the below:

Jim McKeown

Tumelo was 15 months into his job as a data analyst at Masinyusane, a role he had thrived in. With over 500 children to track – progress, attendance, behaviour – his job was demanding. However, he was intrigued by the course his colleague just completed, “Photography: A Masterclass”. He decided to take advantage of Masinyusane’s online learning programme and try it himself.

This innocuous decision, to try a photography course, launched a 6-month whirlwind in which Tumelo would become not only Masinyusane’s top photographer, capturing over 3 dozen of the professional photos used in our most important reports. But also, the leading graphic designer on our most important funding report and a major contributor to our 2019 annual report.

In a few months, the data guy became the creative guru.

Overworked & Underpaid

Nonprofits will rarely be able to compete with corporates or government, when it comes to paying employees and offering competitive financial packages.

How then, are they expected to attract and retain talented staff? Especially in South Africa, a country in which many working class people have an entire family depending upon their salary.

Traditionally, non-profits have sold staff on the importance of the job and the intrinsic joy of knowing that you are changing the world. This works, up to a point.

But there is a second dynamic, often overlooked dynamic. Nonprofit staff members tend to be overworked and underpaid. We all know this. Everyone is forced to wear many hats.

But doesn’t wearing many hats also mean you will have the opportunity to learn a lot? And be given real responsibility. Those two things that are hard to come by in most corporate entry jobs. Ask any LLB graduate doing their articles.

Nonprofits should lean into this dynamic. When it’s coupled with a culture of learning, many staff member will forgive the low pay and hard work because they’ll view the experience through a lens of learning.

Employees are most engaged when they are growing and learning. And engaged employees are the most productive employees.

Building a Culture of Learning

Tumelo, the data guy turned graphic designer above, is the product of Masinyusane’s unlimited online learning platform. Platforms like uDemy and Skillshare have now made this perk affordable, offering highly rated courses in hundreds of skills for fees as low as R200 per course.

But will staff really just start enrolling in online courses and upskilling? The key is to let them learn, explore and tinker around with any skill they want. Masinyusane employees are not instructed to learn anything specific. Would it be great if everyone was an Excel master? Sure. But dictating learning does not work. It’s demotivating for everyone involved and is sure to crash and burn.

Instead, our staff are simply encouraged to try new things and follow a passion or interest. The bet management is making is that the cost of an employee straying off into some unproductive skills will be worth the reward of (a) a more engaged staff and (b) the Tumelo’s of the world discovering a hidden talent.

Our Rules

Make It Public

The company has a public ‘learning board’ showcasing courses completed by staff members. This both celebrates success and puts gentle pressure on others to get some skills under their photo on the board. It is also a reminder to staff, every day, that Masinyusane cares about learning.

Set Goals

Everyone sets public learning goals – unrelated to Masinyusane – about a new skill or two they want to test out or obtain in a given year. The reason is simple: people that set goals achieve more. A side benefit being it gives all managers a talking point with every employee that isn’t related to Masinyusane, but related to that specific employee’s own growth and development.

Let Them Choose the Skill

As mentioned above, this is the key point. You have to let people follow their passion and interests. This maximizes the chances of them putting in the energy to learn something new (which does, indeed, take energy). It’s important to trust this process. Staff will notice you praising skills in the normal course of work that someone has obtained and is benefitting your organisation. That will, in turn, result in more people investing their own time and energy into obtaining skills they know the boss values.

Give It a Try

While it’s too early to measure the long-term impact of such an approach, our management team believes staff are happier, more engaged and more productive that ever. And who knows, maybe there’s a Tumelo sitting on your staff waiting to be discovered.

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