How 3 Nonprofits Invest in Training Via Learning Management Systems
I get the best assignments. Something like, “Go understand this thing and then give me enough to be dangerous on the subject.” I love this job. Recently, the request was, “Go find out about learning management systems (LMS) and tell me what everyone else is doing.” I found out two things: there is no real standard practice with regards to how organizations are utilizing them and, nonetheless, there are some clear strategic leaders.
But first, what is a learning management system?
It assists nonprofits with the tracking and delivery of education, training and more to all of its audiences, including staff at all levels, as well as professionals and volunteers for mission delivery.
Here are some examples of training categories:
- Information technology, including systems, security and applications
- Managerial and supervisory
- Mandatory and compliance
- Processes, procedures and business practices
- Human resources policies, such as diversity, equity and inclusion; soft skills; harassment; ethics; health and wellness; and professional development
- Management and leadership
- Your organization
- Your mission
- Job- or industry-specific training
- Volunteer management and philosophy
Low LMS Investment
There is a ton of variability among your social good peers’ investment in training. Without naming names on the low investment side, you’d be shocked. I know I was.
I heard, “We don’t have anything in [our new system] of value except our new racial equity course. I’d recommend pushing your client to LinkedIn Learning instead of creating new material. They have everything.”
I heard that organizations don’t train on their major revenue products or fundraising in the LMS while others noted they only have annual required trainings, like IT, security and harassment, or only use SharePoint for document storage, not progress tracking.
If these folks were voters, I’d say, “I’ll mark you as ‘undecided,’” regarding LMS training. Still, as a group, they raise more than $1 billion a year.
High LMS Investment
Paul Scribner, an experienced nonprofit program executive who has worked with multiple patient advocacy organizations and professional associations, has developed standard tools that he uses to help organizations with LMS success. Kindly, he is sharing some of them here:
- Core RFP (Download Word document here.)
- Budget worksheet (Download Excel spreadsheet here.)
- Requirements worksheet (Download Excel spreadsheet here.)
In addition to these tools, Scribner recommends defining out-of-the-box versus customized elements that will be required. Not doing so is a common tripping-up point.
“Organizational priorities should be reflected in trainings, like a roadmap defined by executive leadership with some HR collaboration,” he said of the process after the LMS is installed.
Here is what nonprofits are doing on this end of the spectrum; I’ll call them the “LMS training partisans.”
Susan G. Komen
One such enthusiast is Nate Adams, director of learning and development at Susan G. Komen, who is a professional instructional designer and leads the organization’s four-person learning and development team. Hosted in LearnUpon, its content is a combination of vendor-licensed learning and in-house created curriculum.
The material Adams’ team develops is inspired primarily through what he describes as “listening tours” with Komen’s executive leadership team and frontline workers, as well as at conferences. However, management objectives ultimately drive the content his team creates. So, what’s the rationale for having an internal designer?
“We can spin up stuff fast, like when new hires were having trouble setting up desktops,” he said. “We did a fast pivot in response to that need.”
“We brought all instructional design in-house because we had to onboard at scale; the onboarding path is in the LMS,” he added. “We had to create a solution that was scalable and consistent. This structure offered that. We see the dividends.”
Adams is also changing the way his team delivers material, moving away from recorded webinars and toward what he described as “interactive and user-centric design.” He advised creating “micro-learning” content that can be consumed in bits fewer than 10 minutes and features good visual components — in other words, explainer videos.
He described his team and its interactions with the Komen organization as more typical of a for-profit than a nonprofit setup. I can vouch for that; I found only two other nonprofits with a similar level of investment and approach.
On the upside, these systems provide:
- Increased employee performance
- Quicker onboarding and ramp time
- Reduced turnover rate by increasing the employees’ understanding their roles and available resources
Without this level of training there is a:
- Higher chance of employees not hitting full potential at one year on the job.
- Decrease in retention and engagement of employees. It can cost up to three times the employee’s salary to replace them.
- Potential increase in a negative image and discussions that may result from employee turnover
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
Like Adams, Christie Wilson is an in-house instructional designer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and uses outside support, if needed. The organization’s learning catalog includes third-party content, such as Udemy, Skillsoft and Cornerstone OnDemand.
“Meeting people where they are is key,” Wilson, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s senior director of training, said.
Wilson’s LMS includes far more mission delivery training than most, since mentor-mentee matches require rigid standards of practice. In fact, it’s driven by listening tours as well, with a learning and development focus.
However, before the pandemic, material was driven by what she and her team heard at regional trainings and network-wide surveys. Her organization also uses Facebook Workplace to identify and quickly respond to necessary training areas, like what are best practices for matches meeting via Zoom and what ensures child safety in a virtual environment.
“Short videos tend to work best,” Wilson said. “YouTube culture has impacted the learning industry. Micro learning — just in time learning — these tend to be the most effective for our organization.”
Currently the nonprofit’s LMS catalog has about 600 learning opportunities.
“The content builds over time, so start small,” she said. “Have an intentional goal, but it’s important to just get started.”
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Janis Becker, head of talent management at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, plays learning strategy like a team sport — pulling in outside professionals, the leadership team and subject matter experts in house to create vibrant, well-received and effective learning offerings. Utilizing an LMS is key to the learning strategy.
Content generation tools have helped Becker pull subject matter experts inside the organization into creation mode. Authoring tools, like Grovo and Easy Generator, allow in-house subject matter experts to easily create engaging content, relieving stress on her department and creating a compelling engagement point for departments.
She described the nonprofit’s HR transition from a highly transactional HR department to a best-in-class operation under the leadership of Rodney Scaife, its chief people officer.
“From a change management perspective, senior leadership must be on board to support the strategy and the learning management system,” she said. “The system is only as good as adoption.”
The system the organization has in place mimics what one would normally find in a for-profit setting, which is exactly where Becker came from. She considers the combination of an on-demand catalog of content and instructor-led training to be imperative.
“The pandemic has helped with uptake,” she said. “People are using learning programs as a way to connect, to take a mental break from day-to-day work and invest in their professional development. We have strong relationships at the CF Foundation, and, as a result, strong sponsors in the departments. Our content is based on need, what our staff has asked for to support their learning.”
The Best LMS Features
And finally, those whom I interviewed felt these features were most important:
- Ability to push next step courses
- Progress tracking
- Timed release or stepped progression
- On-the-fly development of resources in response to emergent needs, such as home desktop setup during the start of the pandemic
- Ability to use stock material from third-party platforms in combination with original, in-house created material
- Single sign-on
- Ability to open material selectively to multiple audiences: staff, volunteers, etc.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.