How to develop your skills in the third sector

Third Sector Promotion Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation

We spoke to Alec Green, chief marketing evangelist at Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation, for his career advice.

In an era of shrinking budgets and restricted funding, justifying the price for a paid training course can seem almost impossible. There will always be a need for fee-based training courses, particularly when you want to build deep expertise in a specific area. But often what you need is actionable information and practical skills you can use immediately.

Alec Green is chief marketing evangelist at Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation, which runs a free online learning programme called for third sector professionals. We spoke to him to obtain his career advice for those wanting to build their skills without necessarily embarking on a full-on formal course.

Hone your general professional skills

Whilst it’s typical to apply for specific jobs with certain requirements and technical skills, most third sector organisations expect employees to take on a variety of duties which may not have been included on the original job description.

As Green explains: "If you’re hired to work in fundraising, for example, all the ‘hard’ skills such as donor management, direct marketing and solicitation will be highly valuable. But almost everyone is being asked to do more in less time, so general professional skills such as problem solving, time management, project management, taking the initiative and adaptability, are becoming increasingly indispensable."

Keep your skills up to date

When you think about developing your skills you probably consider intensive, formal education courses first and foremost - whether it be a degree, a postgraduate course, or even conferences and webinars.

"Professional development has evolved considerably to meet our busy schedules", assures Green. "There are short videos, articles and podcasts available all over the internet.

"In NonprofitReady, we’ve shifted much of the content away from intensive e-learning courses to shorter, mobile-friendly ‘microlearning’ modules. This gives the learner the flexibility to zero in on a specific topic, or put together a few different microlearning courses to get a more thorough overview."

Advance your career for free with the NonprofitReady Certificate in Nonprofit Essentials

Green also recommends seeking out networking opportunities, both within your chosen field and outside of it: "In every sector there is a natural inclination to interact with people from the same sector. However, the most effective professionals are those who can take in ideas and best practices from other industries and apply it to their own."

Make time for professional development

When price is no longer an obstacle, the hardest part may be to convince yourself it is okay to make time for professional development. "It may feel like you’re taking your focus away from ‘real’ work but in the long run you will discover that the benefits to you and the communities you serve will be immeasurable", enthuses Green.

Top tips

Alec Green offers the following advice for third sector professionals looking to develop their careers:

  • Try different roles: Use the early stages of your career to wear multiple hats, try lots of different roles to help you determine what types of activities come easiest to you and where you can make the biggest impact in the organisation. Then take the time to go deeper into this function and commit to a regular series of ‘formal’ learning opportunities.
  • Go above and beyond: Be comfortable with putting in extra hours and taking on responsibilities outside of your assigned duties. There are plenty of online resources to help you execute a variety of tasks.
  • Make time for informal learning: Depending on your personality this could be networking with other professionals in your area of interest, or it could just be reading blogs and articles, or listening to podcasts from inspiring people in your field. Whatever your approach, the key is to maintain a mindset of continuous learning and incessant discovery.

Charity professionals’ perspectives

Karen Krejcha, executive director of Autism Empowerment, comments: "Although there is value to in-person training, it’s often hard to retain all the information learned. With we can go back to the same course again and again.

"Courses are in different formats to accommodate different learning styles, and our transcript is always available to us so that we know what courses we have taken. We are able to sample a wide range of topics and then hone in on what will be most useful to us in supporting our mission."

Heather Brown, program manager at Starfish Family Services, points out: "People may get promoted because they are good at their job but may not have any experience actually managing people. The courses on having difficult conversations and becoming a first-time manager would be really valuable to anyone making that transition."

Green concludes: "We believe that access to knowledge can have a transformative impact on individuals, organisations, and the communities they serve. That’s why our foundation was launched in 2010, with the mission of transforming the way people help people."

One of its signature programmes,, is a free and open online learning hub for anyone working in the third sector. The 500+ online courses are short, engaging and designed for busy nonprofit professionals. Topics include hard skills such as fundraising, grant writing, marketing, volunteer engagement, and program management, as well as soft skills such as leadership, communication, time management, and diversity and inclusion. Learners can earn certificates with every course they complete and certifications on selected topics.

Want to make a greater impact in the communities you serve? Click here to find out more about the Certificate in Nonprofit Essentials. It takes less than a minute to create a free account and start taking courses.

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