A tech-savvy team is essential for nonprofit organizations that want to thrive in the digital age. How do you go about developing the technology skills of your staff?
In this post, I will briefly explain how to pinpoint which technology skills folks need, assess current skill levels, provide training that doesn’t stink, and nurture a technology-positive culture where tech skills are a priority.
Determining what technology skills your organization needs
Skill requirements are not one-size-fits-all. There are some basic technology skills that most staff likely need, such as the ability to operate productivity software (e.g., Outlook) and video conferencing platforms, use a spreadsheet, create slides, and use tools that are specific to your organization, such as a timekeeping system or an expense reporting system. A bus driver or cleaning staff might need only a few of these skills, whereas a development director might need all these and many more skills.
When assessing the skills of technical staff, such as an IT director or a database administrator, you might be tempted to narrow your focus to only technical skills, which would be a mistake. Success in highly technical roles relies just as much on customer service and change management as on technical abilities.
One approach to documenting skill requirements could be to create a matrix of skills and roles for your organization. You could also review each job description and add essential and helpful skills.
Here are three tools I created or co-authored that can help you match skills to roles:
- Nonprofit Data & Tech Skill-Building Checklist — a worksheet that provides an inventory of technology and data-related skills and a way to rate your skills or those of a team member or job candidate.
- Digital Marketing, Outreach, & Fundraising Tech Skills Map — an interactive diagram of digital competencies for nonprofit roles (free but requires you to provide contact info).
- Digital Skillsets: An Imperative for Today’s Nonprofit Leaders — a white paper describing what skills executives need and how those connect to organizational effectiveness (free but requires you to provide contact info).
- Digital Skills Framework — a taxonomy of digital skills, plus further learning resources to help build skills in each area, aimed at global nonprofits.
- Using adult learning principles in technology trainings — an NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellow shares a few key lessons about how to (and how not to) train adults.
Assessing the technology skills of individual staff
Once you have an idea of the skills required for each role in your organization, you will want to evaluate the current skills of each individual and identify needs for learning or supplementing with outside experts.
Many skill assessments are available to purchase that test specific skills such as coding or proficiency on particular software. Ask your human resources department, HR advisor, or payroll company if any skill assessments are included with the HR software or services you subscribe to.
If you don’t wish to pay for an assessment tool, see if you can borrow one. For example, the University of Kentucky publishes this skills checklist with a list of basic computer skills you could adapt to your context. Or take advantage of free tools. Northstar Digital Literacy has some online assessments free to individuals.
You will likely find more areas of improvement than you have the resources to accomplish, and you will have to prioritize some professional development investments over others. To determine what’s most important, consider the individual’s career goals, growth trajectory, and the organization's needs. What skills are needed to achieve your organization’s strategic goals? Do gaps exist where no one has an essential skill? Would that skill be easy to outsource?
Tech training that actually works
Let’s face it, a lot of technology training is ineffective. It’s boring, and it doesn’t really improve people’s skills. Maybe it imparts knowledge, but people can’t transfer that to a real-life environment.
Whether you are training on how to operate technology, tactics for using technology to achieve a goal, or making strategic technology decisions, you can get better results by following these guidelines.
- Provide training in small doses, maybe five or ten minutes during a staff meeting or via a video people can watch during a coffee break.
- Match the learning environment as closely as possible to the environment where people must apply the skill. If you teach people to operate software, have them follow along on their computer instead of just watching the trainer perform the task.
- Provide opportunities for people to learn by watching, reading, practicing, and reflecting. Adapt to various learning styles, physical and neurological variety, and language proficiency.
- Reinforce learning after one day, week, and month to make it stick.
- Recognize people for trying, improving, and learning from mistakes. Provide accountability that works for your organization's culture, perhaps by providing a treat when 90% of staff complete training or including technology skills on performance appraisals.
- Devise ways of testing whether people understand and can demonstrate the technology skill they are trying to learn during and beyond training.
- Examine incentives and barriers to adopting new technologies and new technology skills–because training alone will not overcome resistance to change or the comfort of familiar behavior patterns.
Make technology skills an organizational priority
You might be thinking, this sounds like a lot of work! Everyone is already so busy. How will we hold space for developing technology skills?
It helps to have an executive sponsor who sees the value of investing in staff technology skills and is willing to speak up for it. Including technology skills in job descriptions and performance appraisals–including evaluating managers on the tech skills of their direct reports–signals that it’s something to take seriously. Budget time and money for professional development, including informal learning, and dips in productivity as people acquire new habits and skills. And when all else fails, bribe people with food. You can’t really go wrong serving pizza at a technology lunch-and-learn (as long as there’s a gluten-free, vegan option!).
A few closing thoughts
This material was originally nested in a break-out session for the 2023 Nonprofit Technology Conference called “Digital Transformation Toolkit.” The session also covered the technology planning process and gaining support for technology initiatives. It’s important to consider staff technology skills in the context of digital transformation because building those skills amplifies all of your other efforts toward digital resilience and innovation.
It also fosters equity when we equip all staff to thrive in their current roles and prepare them with the technology skills they need to advance in their careers. It could provide the spark that ignites a technology career or launches a future leader in our sector.
To summarize a few key points about developing staff technology skills:
- To improve staff technology skills, start by determining the skills your organization needs and assessing current staff skills.
- Design training carefully, verify it’s working, and make it a norm in your organization.
If you are successful, you will be making a valuable investment in your organization's and your colleagues' success.
Speaker, Writer, Consultant, Coach,
Karen Graham is a speaker, trainer, writer, executive coach, and consultant with expertise in technology leadership and innovation, nonprofit software, and digital strategy. She has been an author and contributor for numerous research publications about technology strategy, digital maturity, return on technology investments, and technology skills for the nonprofit sector. Her experience includes serving as ED of Idealware and other leadership roles in capacity building, arts, and human service organizations as well as a software startup. She holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management.