Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Now is not the time to be tight on professional development

Over the past couple of months I have been to a ton of workshops to learn. To learn about marketing, fundraising, communications and Twitter. I'll tell you more about Twitter and other social networking experiments another time, today I want to talk about learning.

While there is talk of the economy recovering, it looks like it's going to be a long while yet before things are rosy again. And there are stories of nonprofits cutting costs in different areas, some of this makes sense and some is plain madness.

One area of madness is when it comes to training. I have just got back from the Bridge Conference in the USA, which is jointly run by AFP and DMA, the American equivalents of the FIA and ADMA. According to a friend, who is a USA commercial sponsor of that conference, they were hoping for 1,300 attendees but fell well short.

I was told that many North American conferences are suffering, and a series of workshops in Canada that used to be well attended had to be cancelled this year because of low attendance, the main reason being ‘the recession'.

Just two weeks before the Bridge Conference I was at the ADMA Forum in Sydney, with over 600 attendees - all but 12 from non-charities. Charities are one of the biggest sectors in spend on direct marketing, and at the conference were tons of direct marketing experts sharing results and information, yet hardly anybody from charities attended.

Is it because we think there is nothing to learn from the likes of Priceline, Forrester Research, SBS, Australia Post, ANZ, 3 Mobile, Lavender, Y&R and lots of others I reckon not. I suspect there are many at charities who have never heard of the ADMA Forum, but I also suspect that people at charities didn't go because of the price and tough choices about training opportunities.
Which one should I go to? Australasian Fundraising Forum, Pathways Australia workshops, MDU, FIA conference, Pareto presents, Xponential workshops, ADMA Forum ...?

I often hear charities that employ tens or hundreds of people, with a fundraising team in the double digits (who are responsible for raising millions) pleading poverty.

Guys, don't be tight - it is a false economy! Don't send everyone to everything, but make sure you have people at most of these things. Depending on earlybird/charity/member rates, ADMA Forum costs about $1,500-$2,000, FIA Conference about $1,000 and the Australasian Fundraising Forum about $770.

For all but the smallest of charities these rates should be peanuts - the return will well outweigh the costs. Attending just one event could make - or save - thousands of dollars. This is great value whether helping to develop a strategy, pulling realistic budgets together or even just for ideas on tactics.

Yes, there are books around, and great articles and blogs, consultants and peers. But conferences often provide tons of useful, practical and evidenced ideas you can put into practice. I know many will be cynical (we have all been to rubbish sessions at conferences) and perhaps some people think they won't learn from any of the speakers. I have been in fundraising for nearly two decades and provide training at many of these events, but I cannot think of one conference I have attended and not learned something really useful that could make my charity (and now clients) more money.

The problem is, many charities don't budget for training, or when they do it is minute. A good rule of thumb I tried to push through at my last charity job was to budget for 5%-10% of staff costs. My reasoning was that I would rather have 18 or 19 well trained staff than 20 not. And it could actually save you money in staff retention - people like to be trained and are therefore less likely to leave.

Of course, conferences are not the only training option, but I think conference attendance is a good litmus test of an organisation's attitude to professional development. In-house and on-the-job training is essential, but without external input, these alone will create an internal spiral of sameness, lack of innovation and eventually, termination.

You will notice my nom-du-blog is ‘Sean is always learning'. Because it pays to learn. But sometimes I have to pay to learn too.


(Originally published in Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine E-Bulletin).

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