Learning for the charity sector: The good, bad and not-so-ugly

Shona Smart looks at some of the most effective ways to execute a third sector learning strategy.

A key characteristic of any organisation – regardless of its size, reputation, area of operations or its income – is that its budgets for staff development are relatively small and perpetually under pressure.

Under those circumstances, people development can be a challenging task but that challenge is magnified in the third sector, where the people who represent charities – especially as volunteers – can be diverse in age, background, experience, outlook, aims and so on.

With such a potentially diverse workforce – encompassing staff, trustees, volunteers and fundraisers – competency and compliance are key issues. Consequently, charities must ensure that all these people have access to appropriate learning materials, are competent in their roles and are recognised for their achievements.

At the same time, charities must make everyone connected with them in any role feel positive about engaging in learning. Online learning platforms can deploy learning to a widely dispersed audience quickly, conveniently, at a time and place to suit each learner – and can do so efficiently and cost-effectively.

They can be particularly effective in upskilling geographically-dispersed groups as well as those, such as volunteers, who’re fitting learning around their other priorities. Moreover, learning platforms, with forums and communities of practice (CoPs), can facilitate the sharing of ideas, as well as give organisations a controlled environment in which to coach and mentor.

By focusing learning activities on learners’ needs, organisations get a better return on their limited training resources – and higher motivation from their workforce to complete learning they feel is relevant and worthwhile for them.

A growing number of organisations now manage skills development via a competency management system which includes the use of micro-credentials. When it comes to assessing competency and providing recognition for achieving various competency levels, use micro-credentials, such as digital accreditations or Open Badges.

Used to reward learning and achievement, Open Badges offer third sector organisations in particular a powerful and relatively low-cost tool to recognise and reward their people.

Developing and publishing competency frameworks for each role in the organisation enables those involved to understand what’s expected of them. By recording training, organisations get the structure and control they need to extend their reach and respond to the increased demand for assessed self-regulation.

Recording individuals’ competency progress, including awarding them relevant micro-credentials, recognises – even celebrates – the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. This tangible proof of CPD is valuable for young people who may be using a volunteering role with a charity as a way of kick-starting their working career.

If online learning platforms and micro-credentials can contribute to a positive approach to meeting the challenge to charities of effective and cost-efficient people development, the potential downside is that charities undertake people development because they feel they must.


In other words, they provide their staff, trustees, volunteers and fundraisers with training courses and learning materials purely to satisfy regulatory bodies’ demands. Such an approach is counterproductive in terms of learner motivation and engagement. Moreover, it doesn’t provide value-for-money for the charities’ stakeholders.

This strategy can result in large numbers of people completing the same training, without there being any evidence that this development intervention is what each of these people requires. In turn, this creates cost for the organisation in terms of wasted resources.

Not only does this fail to produce improvements in productivity, efficiency, effectiveness along with improved value-for-money for stakeholders, it also risks demotivating staff and volunteers as a result of poor learning experiences.

To combat any danger of this, when producing learning materials, take account of individuals’ existing knowledge and experience. By focusing learning activities on learners’ needs, organisations get a better return on their limited training resources – and higher motivation from their workforce to complete learning they feel is relevant and worthwhile for them.

It’s possible to reveal individuals’ existing knowledge and experience through simple online assessments. These assessments can be created using the same tools used to create elearning materials and they can be deployed via the client’s learning management system (LMS).

The results provide a view of individual competency levels across the organisation in particular subject areas. That enables more focused targeting in terms of people development, concentrating learning resources where they’re needed and will be most effective.

Providing a personalised approach to people development increases the likelihood that learners will engage with the learning materials. This can be reinforced by recognising – via micro-credentials – the skills already displayed and new ones gained. Over time, these micro-credentials provide a powerful, low-cost and attractive online record of each person’s experience.

As with any system, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of applying people development strategies.

As we continue to find with our work within the charity sector, online learning, underpinned by online assessments and recognised through micro-credentials, is an extremely attractive way of catering for a highly diverse workforce’s development needs – and it helps provide increasing value-for-money for all stakeholders, including those the charities serve.



About the author

Shona Smart is a Learning Technology Consultant at eCom Scotland.



Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *