For decades, the extent of professional development at most nonprofits was learning on the job to be a jack-of-all trades — fundraiser, office administrator, information technology troubleshooter and whatever else was needed at the local office, including manning the phones.
But Kimberly Currier, vice president of talent development at the American Cancer Society, has been on the forefront of professionalizing learning and development within the nonprofit sector, centralizing those functions at the Atlanta-based organization for a more consistent and job-specific development approach.
Currier also has been spreading her message that learning and development at nonprofits works best if the organizations act more like private sector companies and devise strategies to meet business objectives. “Just because we fund missions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t focus on running our organization like a business,” she said. “We need to develop learning solutions based on strategic outcomes just like a business does if we want to ultimately be successful.”
When Currier joined the society in 2004 as a learning officer for the 12-state Great West Division based in Phoenix, the nonprofit had dozens of divisions that all operated differently. The greatest push for consolidation happened during the past18 months when the society moved to a single organization with 12 regional divisions reporting to the main organization for the first time.
The process enabled Currier and her team to centralize learning and development by working with each division and business leader to identify learning priorities and then creating consistent programs that feel local and meaningful.
“We can offer more to staff and volunteers as a result of efficient use of resources, and we can provide development opportunities to a broader audience,” she said. “We’ve also been able to professionalize talent development, and members of my team know they have a path for their career in talent development.”
Leadership development is a topical issue facing the nonprofit sector. It’s hard to acquire and maintain talented people because they often have to spend years in the same position before moving up in historically flat organizational structures, said Laura Deitrick, director of the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego. This phenomenon can make employees feel as though they are not progressing in their careers, which contributes to high turnover.
“In order to move up, you often have to move on to another organization,” Deitrick said. “Creative nonprofit leaders recognize this and often provide professional development opportunities to keep employees from feeling as though they are stagnating in their careers, and employees recognize there is a value to acquiring skills.”
Larger nonprofits like the American Cancer Society are also creating professional development programs because it can be a powerful way to keep employees and volunteers engaged. Some smaller nonprofits that don’t have the resources to develop in-house programs can use consultants or may help pay for their staff to attend professional development workshops or graduate programs at universities.
However, not every nonprofit puts a high value on professional development, and during economic downturns or budget shortfalls, learning and development budgets are often the first to get cut, Deitrick said. In down times, people just don’t have as much disposable money to donate to nonprofits.
“I have also noticed that some nonprofit boards are reluctant to offer staff professional development programs, citing high turnover rates,” she said. “They’ll say something like, ‘Why should we invest money into an employee that is likely to leave?’”
But Deitrick said such an approach is shortsighted, and she recommends nonprofits use professional development as an employee engagement and retention tool. For instance, position professional development as a benefit to offset some of the downsides of nonprofit work, such as lower pay or a lack of career advancement opportunities.
The Road to Learning
Like many in the field, Currier took a circuitous route to learning and development. A Tucson, Arizona, native, she attended Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, on a softball scholarship. As a starting pitcher, she helped her team win the Southern Conference Championship in 1994.
“As a pitcher on a high-performing softball team, I had to be a leader and learn how to manage team dynamics,” Currier said. “It’s embedded in me and so much a part of who I am today, which works well in how our roles have evolved from personnel to HR to training to talent development and the holistic team approach to learning.”
Currier earned a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, which she said helped her to better understand triggers to get people to respond, change and react. After a yearlong stint as a customer service and inside sales rep at marketing company AlphaGraphics Inc., she entered the nonprofit sector as development manager for the University of Arizona’s Sarver Heart Center in Tucson, helping create an event to bring in more high-level donors by educating them about heart issues and the work the university was doing.
When Currier joined the society in 2004, she had her eye on eventually becoming an executive director. However, the nonprofit was just starting its training journey, and she volunteered to help roll out its first curriculum, in addition to her job as staff trainer. “Then I was bit by the talent development bug and never left. That was a great turning point for me,” she said.
Currier initially had a team of three helping her to create several marquee programs they then sold to the divisions, including a nationwide leadership development program designed to help develop the same leadership competencies as the top 5 percent of the nonprofit’s staff.
The two-year program has face-to-face sessions, coaching, assessment, feedback and an external learning allowance for participants to pursue additional development in an area of their choosing. Currier and her team also built an internal coaching component — which received a Prism Award from the Atlanta chapter of the International Coach Federation in 2010 — designed and implemented a nationwide onboarding platform to educate new staff in business literacy, and built a talent opportunity program to offer career coaching, assessment and mentoring for new, early career professionals. That program was honored by recruiting industry website ERE as the best retention program in 2009.
Currier was also responsible for developing training at the society’s national call information center, which provides information support and services to people seeking information about cancer, donations or volunteering. Then she built a business case for centralized learning and professional development, working with each division to promote a model that essentially transferred those functions to her and expanded her team to about 18 nationwide.
After the field restructuring concluded in November 2013 — the organization is still working on the final corporate center structure — Currier now has 56 talent development team members across the organization, works with 7,000 staff and 3 million volunteers nationwide.
Centralizing learning and development transitioned every division from having its own job descriptions and business units to one organization with common job descriptions regardless of location. Local office staff now have one place to train for IT, finance and more, which means some local staff positions have changed significantly. “Before, they were a jack-of-all-trades. Now they have the opportunity to specialize, which includes our field priorities of community engagement, distinguished giving, health systems and mission delivery,” Currier said.
In 2007, she led creation of ACS University, which offers a suite of learning opportunities and resources for staff across the organization at all levels. The university also has self-directed learning programs on the society’s intranet, which provide staff members with supplemental learning resources including job aids, continuing education resources and external educational partnerships. Currier also led the initial development and rollout of an on-the-job coaching program, which now has 70 coaches across the country.
Angelita Colbert, formerly a member of Currier’s team who is now director of training and organizational development at the Arthritis Foundation in Atlanta, said Currier is innovative, forward-thinking and puts a lot of forethought into developing programs that are very accommodating. “You didn’t have any glass ceilings — you could soar, whether you were a participant or a facilitator,” she said.
Currier and her team also developed a suite of learning programs to help build knowledge and experience in focus areas such as business literacy, sales and account management. “We needed to do this if we wanted to become the next generation of nonprofit,” she said.
Nonprofits should always consider how learning aligns with business objectives, but to do that, flexibilityis critical as nonprofits often make money one year and spend it the next, said Laura Griffith, the society’s chief talent officer. “Our focus has to embrace a shifting business environment and show flexibility to support the creative delivery of our learning solutions, particularly for volunteers. For example, a $20 per person e-learning solution may, at first glance, seem cost-effective, but training 3 million volunteers with such a solution would not be a responsible use of donor dollars.”
Currier solved that problem in part by launching an online portal within the society’s website. Volunteers can access it for various learning opportunities, such as becoming certified to provide transportation for people to receive their cancer treatments. “Kimberly’s role in learning is to think of creative, cost-effective solutions that enable us to develop our staff and volunteers and to be solid stewards of donor dollars,” Griffith said.
The Thought Leader
Currier’s work outside the society — including speaking at industry conferences and co-authoring books and other materials on learning and development — has elevated her status as a thought leader within the nonprofit sector, said Yumna Ali, a former society colleague and now a consultant for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. in Atlanta. Ali has co-authored white papers with Currier.
“Being a nonprofit, we don’t have the same kind of funding for learning as, say, a Coca-Cola, but Kimberly has been able to demonstrate that there is so much we can do with the resources we have,” Ali said.
Susan Edwards, director of learning and development at Cox Media Group in Atlanta, said that Currier is her go-to person whenever she needs a sounding board on anything talent management-related. Not only does Currier have a wealth of experience, Edwards said she knows how to ask the right questions: What are you trying to accomplish, and how does it fit into your business strategy?
“We can get enamored with the latest sexy thing, be it a new technology, or social or mobile,” Edwards said. “But if we can’t show how it’s going to impact our business, then learning and talent management become disconnected from the business, and people start asking hard questions why they should be investing in you.”
More nonprofits are moving to a more centralized learning approach, but Currier said the pace of moving to a more strategic business approach needs to pick up; the nonprofit sector’s share of the U.S. gross national product has been static. Professionalizing learning and talent development would go a long way to increase nonprofits’ share of the GNP.
But Currier said the greatest reward to being a learning professional in a centralized, professionalized organization is the ability “to impact every donor, every volunteer, every experience, enabling staff and volunteers to do and be their best — which touches everything that the American Cancer Society touches.”Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery