January 31, 2015

Do-it-yourself professional development


Sally Migliore

Sally Migliore

Familiar with the expression, "No one person can fulfill all your needs?"

In the nonprofit world, it would be appropriate to change that slightly to: "No one employer can fulfill all your professional-development needs."

For nonprofits, particularly in this economy, it's not likely that money is available for professional development or, if it is, it's very limited.

Yet we know it's essential to invest in staff members who are the cornerstone of effective programs in our communities.

The responsibility for professional development is a shared one.

The role of an executive director is to promote a culture that supports employees' growth, while the responsibility of the employee is to take initiative in creating a plan for how he or she can acquire new knowledge and skills.

Professional development isn't an add-on; it's a core part of doing one's job well and with energy and enthusiasm for continued learning and performance.

So, I'd like to propose how nonprofit staff might go about creating a do-it-yourself professional-development plan.

Depending upon how you get your energy, and how you learn best, you will naturally gravitate to different ways to enhance your professional development.

So, your do-it-yourself plan might be different from that of other staff where you work, or even colleagues at other nonprofits who have similar jobs.

  • Find or create a "learning community" or professional-development network.

When I was an executive director, I participated in a monthly support group of other directors. We engaged a consultant to facilitate our dialogues, which included reading pertinent articles or books about leadership and management.

  • Establish "colleague conversations."

You can meet with one or two colleagues - someone in the same or similar field of work as yours, or in a similar position in their organization.  Decide on what you'd like to read and discuss how it applies to your work.

  • Find someone who can be a sounding board or co-strategist for your ideas about your professional development or about issues you may be dealing with.
  • Find a mentor who perhaps has "walked in your shoes" and can be a guide and resource for your learning. 
  • Become a mentor.

At first this may sound odd but, in my experience, being a mentor has enhanced my own professional development.  I've found myself reflecting on things I've learned or done in a more intentional way that's helped me continue to grow.

  • Don't forget that solitary time for reading and reflection is also a core part of your ongoing professional development.

In our hectic daily lives, we are so accustomed to doing the urgent that we neglect making time to refresh our brains with "bigger picture" thinking.  Make the time to read "think pieces" on cutting-edge issues and topics in your field or the nonprofit sector. You don't need to apologize of feel guilty about this. Professional development is an essential part of your work.

  • Finally, take time to stop the flow of new information.
Our brains can get so overloaded with information that we're at risk of overloading our circuits.  We need time and space to allow ourselves unstructured openings for new ideas and creativity.

Sally Migliore is director of community leadership at the North Carolina Community Foundation.

Comment on this article


This is a great article. Very timely too. I recently received a review from my current employer. Though it was not as favorable as I'd hoped, he did recommend that I ramp up my professional development.
Though I frequently attend conferences, this article pointed out some other ways in which I could 'self-improve'. Thank you for sharing this.

Thanks for the practical article. One additional point is that exposing yourself continuously to points of view that are *different* from your own will also accelerate your professional development.

So, in addition to seeking out "colleague conversations" and other *people*-based resources, you also can seek out and modify solutions *across* functional roles and nonprofit sub-sectors.

As helpful as it is to talk with people who have walked in your shoes, sometimes the best ways to trigger innovation is try on others' shoes.

A very thoughtful and helpful article; it causes me to pause and rethink my professional development. Very well stated!

Napoleon Hill, the author of "Think and Grow Rich", recommended that in order to be successful leaders should use Mastermind groups. A Mastermind or peer group, is a collection of like minded individuals who can share their problems, concerns and suggestions for the greater good of all members of the group. The facinating problem with the non-profit industry is that while we are supposed to be in a co-operative environment, we more often than not act in issolation, ignoring the experience of others. It is evident that business leaders in the much more competetive for profit world who join clubs, golf together and socialize, move forward faster and with greater results than isolationists, the non=profit world tends to operate in a vacuum, ignoring the mentorship provided by their peers. Join in, share, and grow your connections.

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