Technology Training: The Nonprofit Viewpoint

Technology Training: The Nonprofit Viewpoint

Lack of resources often a challenge

By: Marc Osten and Beth Kanter

October 1, 2002

Editor's Note:

This article is part of the Adopting Technology Series, which is produced by Dot Org Media . Dot Org Media is a co-production of Marc Osten at Summit Collaborative and Michael Stein .

"Technology training should answer real-world questions and work in the actual moment."
-Jane McNichol, executive director of the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut

In the course of researching this Adopting Technology series, we spoke to nonprofit executive directors and staff of 21 organizations to find out what they find most challenging about technology training. They also shared what they think are some of the most effective practices in training. While some of their concerns are similar to those any organization would face, others tend to be specific to nonprofits.

Nonprofit directors and staff told us that nonprofits face a number of serious challenges, including a lack of resources -- namely time and money -- and the perception that training takes away time from mission-driven activities such as working with their clients.

They also face resistance to change from staff members, since learning how to use technology often means changing the way you currently do things.

As far as training programs that have worked, nonprofits indicated that the best programs they’ve experienced are those that use a variety of teaching approaches, value peer-to-peer training, provide incentives for training, and keep things simple.

Lack of Resources: Time and Money

Nonprofit executives and their staff repeatedly said that key barriers to technology training were finding the time for staff to spend away from regular job duties and acquiring the funding to cover the expense of the training itself.

Some executive directors observed that time and monetary barriers are only the surface problems. "Our organization's priority is working to improve neighborhood quality-of-life issues," said Michele Pankow of the Midtown Community Benefit District in Baltimore. "Often, time spent fighting trash, drugs, or prostitutes takes priority over technology training, particularly when less technological, grassroots efforts are often effective.

"There are very [few] conversations about technology," she says. "We need to recognize that improvements in technology will further enhance our work, and we need to integrate the importance of technology into everything we do."

Resistance to Change

Some executive directors report that technology training barriers include staff attitudes and perceptions about changing the way they work.

Said one executive director, “The biggest challenge I see is the lack of enthusiasm. Those employees who have been accustomed to 'paper and pencil' methods still tend to have a fear of what a computer can do for them.”

Resistance can surface from employees at all levels. "Some of my senior staff are actually afraid of technology and just don't see the need to do anything," said one executive director. "They [use] the administrative assistant to put their reports and letters together and sabotage any effort to be trained."

One person who is responsible for coordinating peer training in an organization said that staff need to be convinced that making time for training will actually help ease their workload in the long run. "Convincing valuable, long-time employees -- most of them in key positions -- to rethink and relearn habits can be a difficult task because over time they had slipped into habits that 'worked' for them and didn't necessarily see how the new way could be more beneficial," the training coordinator said.

The Need For a Technology Training Plan

Nonprofits also point to a lack of planning as a key barrier to delivering effective technology training.

Said Mark Cameron of the Neighborhood Design Center in Baltimore, "To date, we have not provided any technology training for staff other than allowing staff to attend technology training workshops as part of their professional development -- this rarely has been used by staff -- or through haphazard mini-training when issues arise."

Stephen Haynes, Cultural Coordinator for the Center for Youth at the Maria C. Sanchez Elementary School echoed these sentiments. "Training would help solve problems that arise daily and impede our progress on everything from small mundane tasks to really big jobs," he said.

Without a training plan in place, nonprofits say that there are many logistical and scheduling challenges. “Most of our staff are part-time and work in different places in small shifts on a rotating basis. So getting the training to those who need the training is difficult,” said one executive director.

“Setting times for training of employees is always a challenge," said an executive director of a human services agency. "Our staff is in the field throughout the day and weekends on various schedules, depending on their current caseload. It is almost impossible to get everyone in the same room at the same time. Therefore, individual or small group training sessions are the best for our employees.”

With these challenges, nonprofits are quick to point out the benefits of developing a training plan. Lucille Murrell of the Family Health Center of Worcester said that a training plan would help her organization provide training at the right time, at the correct level, and help organize follow-up training and appropriate reference materials.

Cameron said that a plan would need to include time to assess training needs through developing, administering, and compling surveys, and time to develop methods for training that evaluate group, individual, in-house, or consultant training methods. Naturally, identifying, securing, and budgeting resources for training is a key step, he said.

Diversity of Staff Skills and Knowledge

Another challenge is that staff members have a wide range of knowledge and skill levels, and providing efficient training to address a vast array of needs is a difficult task.

"The biggest challenge facing me in dealing with staff training on technology is that people don't know what they don't know" said one executive director. "Assessing staffs' actual skills is a critical piece of developing a technology training plan and is overlooked."

In addition, some say the level of staff expertise changes with new hires. While an organization may have some staff members who are fairly proficient in the basics of using office applications or the Internet, newly hired staff members may arrive at an agency with practically no experience.

"The biggest challenges are finding the right level of training for staff who are at different levels of competency in a way that is interesting to all," said one executive director of a small agency.

Some Lessons Learned: Use A Variety of Delivery Methods

Executive directors stressed the importance of having a variety of delivery methods for technology training given the logistical challenges of staff schedules, diversity of skills levels, and differing learning styles.

Said Leslie Roth, executive director of the Girl Scouts of Broward County, "We allow staff to select the type of training they believe would work best for them. Many of our staff have taken specific training workshops off-site. Others have asked that we purchase a 'how to' book, and they work through it themselves. And some simply lock themselves in their offices and learn a new program -- or how to use a program better -- through trial and error."

"You have to do what works best for you, and we have found that variety works best," said Pankow. "We have sent individual staff members to trainings, and then allowed that staff person to report back to the larger group [on] what was learned and discussed. We have also invited tech gurus to share their knowledge with our staff. We also have an informal peer training network. If one staff member excels in a certain skill area, that person will share those skills with other staff persons on an as-needed basis."

Said Angela Atwater, executive director of Kidsafe in Connecticut, "I offer various forums and venues for learning, including small groups and individual sessions. A large overview for the entire staff only seems to work when a major change or addition in technology is introduced."

Peer Training Boosts Organizational Capacity

We were encouraged to hear that some organizations are turning to "train the trainer" strategies and peer training approaches.

"Empowering staff to train coworkers is a wonderful way to bolster the collective memory and problem-solving abilities in the work place," said Haynes.

"What works is having technology 'gurus' on staff who are willing to train staff," said one executive director. Said Wilkins, "Training each other and creating an environment in which sharing happens as a matter of course is fundamental."

Many nonprofits have found that grouping staff into training sessions by skill levels and interests not only makes for effective training, but can also encourage individuals to turn to one another for reinforcement later.

Embed Technology Training Into Other Organizational Activities

Some organizations are integrating technology training with everyday activities such as staff meetings. “A new quick training method we've begun is sharing a tech tip at our weekly staff meeting. We've had many tips from many different people,” said one executive director.

Others emphasize the importance of having technical support or written materials that can be easily accessed by staff following trainings. "We've begun an ongoing Tech Tip file on our server for referral and have found it to be a great learning tool," said another executive director.

Provide Incentives to Master Technical Skills

Many executive directors emphasize the importance of finding ways to motivate their staff to participate in training.

"I would refer to the supply and demand theory," says one executive director. "Today's world revolves heavily on computers; the more you know, the more you are better equipped to make educated decisions in whatever career field you choose. The strongest benefit or incentive would be the increase in base pay with the added knowledge of computers, software programs, database experience, and Web capabilities."

Keep It Simple

Some executive directors say that it is important to keep training simple and focus only on what the staff needs to know to get their jobs done.

"The best learning has come from an immediate need to know," said one executive director. "For example, if an employee needs to set up a table in Microsoft Word, the best training comes from sitting down and working through the procedures right at that moment. The employee understands it better when they have to do it."

"Working in small bites is important," said Jane McNichol, executive director of the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut. As another executive directors said, "Technology training should focus on the basics. Anything beyond is just gravy. Technology training should answer real-world questions and work in the actual moment."

While most would agree that effective training is at the heart of successful nonprofit technology use, the barriers are real and serious. It takes time and can be costly. A shift in focus to adequately devote time and funding to training may end up reaping more benefits than an office full of new equipment.

About the Authors:

Marc Osten is Founder of Summit Collaborative.

Beth Kanter is a trainer, blogger, and consultant who writes about social-media tools in the nonprofit sector. She additionally develops curricula, researches, and evaluates technology for nonprofits. You can learn more about her at



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