Nonprofit Professional Development: 4 Things to Focus on Now

Effective professional development practices can bring any nonprofit to the next level. Here are four suggestions to focus on in 2020 and beyond to bring about a better team.

Nonprofits may never have seen a time like this in history. Some can’t offer their services at all during the pandemic. Others have never seen such a high demand for their programs. Some have no revenues. Others are hitting records, but not enough to keep pace with urgent needs. To survive, they all need a firm grasp on basic skills, and an openness to new ideas. In short: Adapt or die.

For nonprofits, this means not just getting up to speed, but maintaining a professional development edge in four critical areas that will make a difference in 2020 and for the foreseeable future.

1. Communications

2. Empathy

3. Marketing

4. Fundraising

There’s no time to waste. Let’s dive in.

1. Communications

No more excuses. Nonprofits  need to become adept at communications, especially communications technology. These days, expressing yourself well through word processing, spreadsheets, and graphic design is akin to being an articulate speaker in our parents’ generation. It’s a pathway to personal and organizational success.

Nowhere have we seen this more than in presentation skills.

Presentation skills have always been important in the nonprofit world. Maybe you need to stand in front of your board or a local civic club or even your colleagues.

Today, those talks will occur through video technology. And while we pine for the “good old days” of just a few months ago, we’ll probably never fully go back. That means you have to learn how to present online because it just moved into the category of “life skill.”

The nice thing is that technology helps us with technology. Let’s take typing. Who said we had to express the thoughts in our brain through our fingers to a keyboard? Today, we have voice-to-text. You might even already use it to compose text messages on your smartphone. Why not use the same to get a first draft done for your next letter?

For all the bad the pandemic has wrought, one good thing is that it’s pushed a lot of us into more efficient use of our resources—which is always key to a nonprofit.

2. Empathy

Nonprofits are built on empathy, and today, empathy is more important than ever. I like to think of it as “getting into the head” of those you serve.

True empathy is hard, and you might never achieve it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Do you need to be homeless to work with the homeless, or to drink toxic water to fight for clean rivers? No. But you can connect with the people impacted by the problem your mission addresses—like the homeless family living in their car, or the boy in special education because his family’s water supply came from a stream carrying heavy metals.

There’s another group whose head you need to get into: your donors. Whatever their motivations, a little empathy goes a long way. After all, they’re humans, too, and while they have the means to give, they also have their own problems that your team may be able to assist with once you begin to put yourself in their shoes.

3. Marketing

Marketing is not typically a nonprofit strength. There’s a good reason: You have an important mission that costs money and time—not resources to be wasted on brochures and Websites!

But everything is marketing. In his book, “To Sell is Human,” Daniel Pink points out that nearly everything we do involves some kind of sales—from deciding what you’ll have for supper to getting your next job. But marketing is a lot more than sales, and a lot more subtle, too. What did you say to your neighbor about your nonprofit? That’s marketing. How about what’s on your e-mail signature? Marketing. Have you checked the condition of your building’s entrance  or whether your program staff smiles at their clients? Yup. Marketing. Marketing’s also the typical things you think of, like fliers, social media, and commercials.

Why is marketing so important to learn? Because today, more than ever, you’re going to be in competition for revenue, support, and even clients. While you may not be directly responsible for recruiting clients or finding donors, everything mentioned above and a lot more impacts the process. If a shabby waiting room doesn’t drive away clients, it  sends a message that they’re just not that important—and you know they’ll tell their friends.

4. Fundraising

Fundraising is a lot more than asking for money.

Fundraising is identifying a possible donor. It’s showing a donor the impact of your programs. It’s saying ,“Thank you,” right after a gift. It’s listening—a lot of listening—to what’s important to your donors, why they love your nonprofit, and what’s motivating their relationship. Yes, asking is part of fundraising, too. But if you do all those other things, whether in person, by proposal or in the mail, that ask is a lot easier!

So even if you don’t have a fundraising role, you need to know the basics. Plus, if nothing else, a grasp on fundraising makes you more valuable—so it’s a great career move.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Technology, empathy, presentation skills, marketing, and fundraising. They’re all powerful, essential skills for 2020. None of this should be a surprise. Yet all of these take on special urgency in 2020.

So today, whether you’re on a nonprofit staff, serve on a board, or volunteer a few hours a week, get up to speed on these essential skills—for your nonprofit’s survival and the good of the people you serve. And luckily, even with a limited budget for professional development, your nonprofit team should be able to find effective training resources. Good luck!

Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the U.S. and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (, an on-demand, e-learning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work. He’s the author of “The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting,” and “Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers,” and a contributing author to “The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.” All three titles are available on Amazon. -Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Hugg raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities. Hugg teaches fundraising, philanthropy and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College, and Thomas Edison State University via the Web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. He has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia, and several nonprofits.