Over the past several decades, there has been a decline in professional development budgets across sectors and industries. This is particularly true in the nonprofit sector. Even large organizations rarely have healthy professional development budgets. And small to medium organizations even less-so. However, the nonprofit sector is in a constant state of change and it is important for the health of our organizations and the communities we serve that our staff teams are equipped to successfully navigate this changing world and propel our missions. So how can we ensure that our teams are learning and growing to keep pace with the world around them if we haven’t the budgets to support their development? And, in addition to organizational and community health, we must consider the individual team member, as well. Professional development opportunities help us retain our staff. A lack of opportunities for growth may lead to stagnation, a lack of creativity and motivation and may increase disengagement and turnover.

Thankfully there are ways we can create professional development opportunities with a zero-budget. They do require time, effort, planning and monitoring but over the long-term they may help to strengthen our teams and organizations as well as grow the skills and abilities of our staff teams.


Many organizations may already have a mentorship program in place. According to PLC’s Executive Directors’ Survey Report, “Leaders of Today: An Inside Look at the Executive Director Experience in Peel Region”, 88% of EDs are currently mentoring someone within their organization and 35% are mentoring EDs at other organizations. The recommendations of the report suggest that EDs identify one or two future leaders within their organization to mentor which can help grow the staff member’s abilities and redirect some of the ED’s workload. It is not only EDs who can be mentors, though. Senior staff can mentor more junior staff members, too. The mentoring relationship is about helping the mentee develop personally and professionally. The mentor-mentee relationship develops trust and creates a safe-space for the mentee to share issues that may be impacting their professional and personal success. When structured and delivered properly these relationships help to not only grow the mentee but the mentor as well as they share their experiences and advice with their more junior colleagues. The trick is to develop a mentoring program that works best for our particular organizations and our people. For some ideas, see Inc.com’s guide, “How to Start a Mentoring Program


Coaching differs from mentoring in that it is more direct and specific in terms of desired outcomes. At its best, it is a process that empowers a team member to excel. Coaching relationships may be established to help a team member develop a particular skill. The coach is usually an ‘expert’ in this field and is paired with the team member to help them develop that skill – it could be managing people, budgeting, strategic thinking, etc. The goal is about performance improvement and this relationship is usually more short-term and action-oriented. But coaching isn’t teaching, either. The coach deploys deep listening skills and understands the kinds of questions to ask in order to help their partner identify their own path to success. Check out Forbes’ guide to setting up an internal coaching program in “Building an Internal Coaching Program: A Five-Step Blueprint for Success”.

Job Shadowing

We may have hired someone based on the skills and experiences they highlighted in their application. However, there may be some other special skills and abilities the employee possesses of which we may not be aware. Our organizations, priorities and goals may evolve, and we may explore our own staff teams to find the new skills we need. Job Shadowing can help expose employees to other organizational functions and in turn, reveal previously unknown skillsets that can assist in areas outside of their regular role. Job shadowing also uncovers other potential career trajectories for our staff teams. They may hear or think they know about other team functions, but when they shadow a co-worker they learn the ins and outs of the position and may gain a broader understanding of how our organizations work. Job shadowing can help expand the view of staff teams and deepen their knowledge about organizational processes, functions and machinations. Have a look at what one company did in “Take Your Coworker to Work Day – Job Shadowing.”

Stretch Assignments

Stretch assignments are another way to expose unknown talents in our staff teams. By giving a staff member a project that may be slightly beyond their current function and expertise, they are forced into an uncomfortable space which may produce some ingenuity, creativity and greater self-awareness. Once we have spent time in a role and feel we’ve mastered it, we’re not often pushed into tasks that extend and develop our abilities. Stretch assignments help managers see other skills, abilities, strengths and talents in our teams, and help the staff member to expand their experience and grow new skills. Check out these short and sweet tips on creating stretch assignments for our teams in “How to Use Stretch Assignments for Employee Development”.

Lunch & Learns

A great way to develop the skills, abilities and knowledge bases in our teams is to draw from our team members themselves. We each possess an expertise in some area that could be of benefit to others within our organizations. Whether it’s about our jobs and roles within the organization, or other knowledge outside of our area of work, setting up a ‘lunch & learn’ series can help grow skills for everyone involved. Employees attending the ‘lunch & learns’ will learn something new and the team member delivering it may gain public speaking, presentation and communication skills, not to mention a boost in self-confidence by being the knowledge sharer. Side benefits of ‘lunch & learn’ sessions include team building, positive organizational culture building and more. This article shares varied structures and benefits of ‘lunch & learn’ programs: “What is Lunch and Learn?”.

Action Committees

There may be problems, challenges and obstacles in our organizations that require some dedicated time and effort to overcome. This may be identifying funding sources, finding new office locations, addressing emerging community needs, reducing supply costs, or any other number of challenges we face in the nonprofit sector! Often these problems land at the doorstep of one individual (ED, Program Manager, etc.). However, if we gather a group of folks from different areas of our organizations, we may find faster and more creative solutions. Action Committees employ focussed group work to identify and tackle an organizational issue. This group work can help employees stretch beyond their day-to-day and work together with their coworkers to come up with an actionable plan. Action Committees can help build positive organizational culture, grow new networks for staff, and help employees learn new skills and gain new knowledge from each other.

BONUS: Bridgespan has created a list of free PD options in “52 Free Development Opportunities for Nonprofit Staff”.

We hope this blog has helped you identify some potential professional development ideas for your teams! If you’d like to let us know how it goes, or if you’ve got some free PD ideas you’d like to add to this list that have worked for your organization, please let us know in the comments below or email us at info@peelleadershipcentre.org.

Until next time,

The PLC Team

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