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I’m a Teacher, and You Are Too: Four Lessons About Learning to Help Your Nonprofit Thrive

I’m a Teacher, and You Are Too: Four Lessons About Learning to Help Your Nonprofit Thrive

If I were to ask you to picture a teacher, you might recall a high school teacher who inspired you to follow a new path, or maybe a workshop presenter who explained some finance concept in a way that finally made sense. 

When I picture a teacher, I think about someone like you. You may be like many people working within a nonprofit—an “accidental teacher” who regularly educates staff, board, community members, and decision makers about important topics. You do so without formal teacher training, yet your success matters immensely.

By spending time in the sandbox of adult learning, we can draw on proven tools to become better leaders, managers, and influencers. Here are four lessons in learning to bring into your organization.

Action Is Our Goal

With it comes to nonprofit learning, our goal is action. It is not enough to “know” what is needed to stay legal, or that we should advocate for our mission. That knowledge needs to translate into actions that we can see and hear, such as filing annual reports, talking about oversight at board meetings, or telling your story to a legislator. 

Adult educators think a lot about the barriers holding people back from taking these actions. Are they environmental or cultural? Is the barrier a key tool or resource? Do people lack knowledge or skill? Are emotions holding them back? 

Think about the actions you want to encourage. What barriers stand in the way? What can you do to remove those barriers?

It Is About Them, Not Us

How many times have we gotten frustrated that a board member doesn’t own their fundraising responsibility? We may have wished that a legislator voted a different way or that staff took more leadership on some issue. We have needs and expectations to be met, yet action starts with them. That board member, legislator, or staffer brings knowledge, skills, and emotions to the task. By spending time in their world, we can build a better bridge to where we are standing.

Think about the people you want to move to action. What do they know or feel now? What skills do they bring?

Emotions Motivate Us

When you think about finance, what emotion comes over you? (If we were in a room together, the answers would range from pure love to fear or anger.) What role would that emotion play in engaging you in, say, a finance training? 

The research is mounting about the importance that emotion plays in learning and action. Emotion links to motivation, which has a direct role in supporting or hindering action. Motivation contributes to how we shape habits—the ultimate action because it repeats over time. 

At this point, you know your people and what actions you want them to take. How can you honor and harness their emotions? How can you show you know what motivates them (their “why”)? 

There is So Much to Know. Maybe.

There is so much we need board members, legislators, or staff members to know. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a “brain dump” of information? Actually, no. 

The amount that a person’s brain can handle is limited, particularly if they come to you with less prior knowledge upon which to build. And we humans have a proclivity to forget information. Knowledge on its own doesn’t turn into action. It is our job as teachers to categorize information and curate it down to just what people need to know to take the next step.

Think about what actions you want your people to take. What information do they need to do that task? What information is unnecessary?

When we step into the role of teacher, whatever our official title may be, we expand our toolbox so we can be better leaders, manager, and influencers. 

Want to Learn More?

  • Watch this short video on how to plan for action.
  • Download “Chunk Flip Guide Laugh” for a way to think about the information you want to present.
  • Sign up to receive a monthly email about learning and nonprofits.

Nancy Bacon is a teacher, instructional designer, consultant, and speaker on topics at the intersection of learning and nonprofits. She created Washington Nonprofits’ learning program in 2013. A former ESL and middle school teacher, Nancy has done nearly every job within a nonprofit: ED, program director, board chair, strategic planning chair, and volunteer. Nancy regular writes and speaks about topics related to nonprofits and learning. www.nancybacon.com

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