Investing in Professional Development of Agency Staff Members

ProfessionalDevelopmentAssisting a staff member who wants to pursue further education and training is not only a benefit to the individual professional but also has added value for the nonprofit organization.

By Stephen G. Donshik

I often receive phone calls from professionals in the nonprofit sector who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees and applying to Hebrew University’s MA Program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. I have been struck by how many of them tell me that their employers will neither provide any tuition assistance nor give them release time so they could earn a related advance degree.

Let me tell you about a call I received just this week. It was from one of my colleagues who works for the Israel office of a major American Jewish institution of higher learning and wants to continue his professional education and training. When he asked for support from his agency, he was told he would have to choose between his job and his desire to learn. It was startling to me that an institution of higher education would not find a way to exercise flexibility in allowing one of its professional employees to pursue advanced education.

At the end of the day my colleague will be frustrated and eventually leave his position. The institution will have lost a valued staff member whom they claim is too valuable to be allowed to take time off to pursue his own development. It seems as if the institution is contradicting one of its own values by not allowing someone to continue to pursue an advance degree.

Assisting a staff member who wants to pursue further education and training is not only a benefit to the individual professional but also has added value for the nonprofit organization. In general, employees who continue their education can contribute more to the agency and be a valued resource in several different areas. It is sad and a wasted opportunity when organizations squander the chance to strengthen their professional culture by discouraging their professionals from participating in continuing education opportunities.

First and foremost, the professional who experiences a quality higher educational program often returns to his or her position thinking differently about ideas, issues, challenges, conflicts, and problems that need to be solved. The opportunity to step outside the day-to-day pressures of professional practice enables committed colleagues both to expand their understanding of the way nonprofit organizations respond to communities’ needs and deliver needed services and to reflect on what is and what could be.

Yes, there are enormous financial and human resource pressures on voluntary organizations today: they struggle to meet monthly budgets, deliver quality services with a limited staff, and to creatively find some way to plan for an uncertain future. Too often one of the first budget lines to be cut is continuing professional education. However, doing so is “penny wise and pound foolish” – a classic example of failing to think ahead.

In the best of all worlds nonprofits would have in place a continuing professional education fund to pay for or subsidize tuition payments for professionals seeking advanced education or training experiences related to their work and field of interest. At the same time, they would have policies in place providing compensated release time so that the professional’s income was not decreased by the decision to pursue an advanced degree.

There are a number of different models for both tuition payments and release time. Some organizations fund the entire cost of degree-granting programs, whereas others match, either on a 1 to 1 or 2 to 1 basis, every dollar the staff member pays toward tuition. In exchange for this assistance, some agencies require a commitment from the professional to continue to work for a number of years after earning the degree.

For those nonprofit organizations experiencing a budgetary crisis and that are unable to provide funding for continuing education, then release time can be a suitable option. There are always creative solutions that can be instituted to deal with staff coverage when there is a commitment to encourage the staff to seek advanced education.

A number of nonprofits have developed specially endowed staff training funds that have grown slowly over a number of years. These endowment funds can either be funded by a number of contributors and offered as a donation option when someone wants to make an investment in the agency’s long-term growth or can be instituted by a particular donor to honor or memorialize an individual committed to organizational development.

When I was working for the UJA-Federation of New York a donor endowed an in-service training program in his son’s memory. His son had worked for the UJA-Federation and always thought that the staff did not receive enough training in international Jewish communal issues and services. The endowment was set up to fund a small group of professionals to travel to Eastern Europe or the FSU and then on to Israel for a 21-day training program: this program was designed by UJA-Federation staff to facilitate the professionals’ use of their educational experience when they returned to their positions at their agencies.

I hope that nonprofits in all areas of the field of Jewish communal service will develop creative approaches to support professionals who want to continue to learn and develop their knowledge and skills in formal educational frameworks.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.