​​What on-the-job professional development means – and how to ask for it

By Marc Schultz

Whatever you’re looking for in your current or next job, chances are it includes the opportunity to advance. Indeed, a 2023 report from Nonprofit HR found “lack of opportunity for upward mobility/career growth” among the top three reasons for voluntary turnover (alongside “compensation/benefits” and “better opportunity presented”). 

The solution: Getting your employer to commit to on-the-job professional development, which paves your way – and proves your worth – for more advanced opportunities.

But how do you convince a skeptical manager to make that commitment? And what does on-the-job professional development mean in practice?


Employers need a talent pipeline 

The argument for professional development is pretty straightforward: The smartest way to hire is hiring internally. Among the advantages:

  • Skipping costs in productivity. Outside hires can take two to nine times longer than internal hires to get up to speed.
  • Minimizing risk. Multiple studies in the for-profit sector show that 40 to 60 percent of external C-suite hires fail within 18 months.
  • Giving employees (like you!) what they want. Worker demand for learning, mentorship, support, and career-advancing opportunities is only growing.

In addition, it doesn’t require much money to establish a culture of professional development, because formal training is only a small part of a reliable development formula. As you’ll see below, this approach does require thought, effort, and commitment, but relatively little funding. 

And it’s additionally cost-effective through Nonprofit University, a national leader in virtual training, which offers affordable courses in all areas of nonprofit management as well as subscription plans.


How to pitch your professional development effort

The first step is a conversation about professional development. When bringing this up with your manager, you’ll want to discuss:

  • Your competencies and skill gaps.
  • Where you see yourself in the coming years.
  • Challenges that you find intriguing, including those already on your plate and those faced by others in the organization.

With those factors in mind, you can work together on a plan for professional development using the 70/20/10 principle: 70 percent through experience, 20 percent through mentoring, and 10 percent through formal training.

The Center for Creative Leadership designed the 70/20/10 approach by looking at research into how adults learn best; you can see the principle at work in disciplines like athletics and musical performance, where daily practice – the experience component – plays an outsized role.

In short, a 70/20/10 plan means:

  • Experience: The vast majority of professional development should come from on-the-job “stretch” assignments. These can be as simple as changing up your responsibilities to give you specific experience with a desired skill set or knowledge area. 
  • Mentorship: Connecting with someone who can help you develop and hold you accountable for meeting your development goals. Current leadership is the first place to look for mentors and coaching, but you should also consider professional associations, retiree groups, and other nonprofits (or for-profits) that you or your organization have developed relationships with. 
  • Formal training: Skills development through expert-led coursework is vital, but at just 10 percent of the formula, the financial cost for your employer shouldn’t be high.

So how much time, exactly, are we discussing? Google is known for encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their on-the-job time learning new things. Assuming your nonprofit isn’t quite as well resourced as Google, 10 percent might be more reasonable. For a full-time employee, the 70/20/10 approach means that a year of learning involves roughly:

  • 145 hours of stretch assignments
  • 42 hours of mentoring or coaching
  • 21 hours of formal training

It’s a significant time commitment, but the return for employers is also significant: Staff members are energized by the investment in their careers, and the organization gains a trustworthy leadership pipeline.


Getting your talent development process underway

Here are three steps to take to get your professional development process going. Work with your employer to:

  1. Identify the competencies needed for the organization’s future. Think skills, capabilities, and experiences that enable you to achieve your goals and to get better every year. Consider what’s universal (like teamwork) and role-specific (like donor management), as well as leadership competencies that your organization values. If your employer is unsure about what they need, point them toward this breakdown of the Bridgespan Group’s Performance-Leadership Matrix. (Or forward them the employer-focused version of the article you’re currently reading.)
  2. Co-create development plans. Using the 70/20/10 approach, craft a plan with your manager to pursue two or three competencies. This means crafting stretch assignments to develop a specific skill or knowledge area while identifying current assignments that can be deprioritized to make space.
  3. Track progress, learn, and improve. Start simple by focusing on concrete activities: Making sure a development plan is in place, tackling stretch assignments, and keeping tabs on what’s working for you and what isn’t. Meet with your manager regularly to discuss progress – an hour each week or two is a good starting point. Learn and improve from there.

Be patient with yourself and leadership: Neither of you may know the right stretch assignments when you first start development planning, but with the plan in mind, opportunities should arise in the course of broader organizational planning. 

To find mentors and coaches, think outside the box and cast a wide net. When making the pitch to potential mentors, don’t forget to play up the benefits in terms of delegating tasks (so long as they fit your development goals), as well as adding to their sense of purpose and the organization’s capacity.


GCN is here to help

Our Nonprofit University provides affordable training in every area of nonprofit management, with options for those at every level of their career.

Be sure to check out our new Management Accelerators, empowering managers at every stage to overcome the challenges of the moment.

In addition, our Nonprofit Consulting Group specializes in crafting strategies for organizational resiliency, including talent development and succession planning.

Bookmark our schedule of upcoming educational events and reach out to us any time with your questions.

Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.

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