The Servant-Leader Blog
by Kurt Riesenberg, Executive Vice President & Co-Founder
Recently I received several of the same types of questions about online education for nonprofits. The questions have been around cost, complexity and the potential for generating either loyalty/retention or revenue, or both. In some cases these were conversations with representatives or board members of new organizations. In other cases the questions came from seasoned nonprofit professionals that have struggled with options and decisions over the past year, wondering if online education is here to stay, if it was filler for the pandemic, or something in the middle.
They are stressed about the seeming complexity of the process, assimilating yet another platform into their ecosystem, the availability of content to use, and wondering about the differences in value between live Zoom training sessions and recorded, on-demand sessions. One is quick, the other takes more thought and infrastructure. You should think about doing both.
Show Don't Tell
When the same conversation happens time and again as it did to me this week, it becomes clear that something should be produced to attempt to answer those questions. That’s the reason I took a few days and assembled our online education free demo. I tried to answer these questions and give a user-experience on a top national turn-key platform at the same time. That’s recently available here.
As I mention in the demo, I was going to write a blog post about this but was concerned it would get too long. I thought showing might be better than telling. Then yesterday, less than 24 hours after our little demo went live, I pulled my copy of CEO Update out of the mailbox. Walt Williams published another great cover article about this very topic. I can’t let that slide by! So here’s the blog post I said I wasn’t going to write.
First and quickly Walt Williams - I don’t know you personally but you’ve stayed on top of trends in the industry and have informed me over and over again. So many cover articles. There was one from January 2020 - Groups Double Down On Developing and Delivering Educational Content. I actually quoted you quoting Urena and South in the aforementioned online education demo. I’ll share two of those quotes here for context of this post:
If you look back at the core tenets of why associations exist, education and continuing learning is an integral part of what many groups do, said Christopher Urena, chief learning officer for the Endocrine Society. ‘And yet for many years it has kind of been an afterthought: We had our in person programs, they performed well, everyone went there, competition was not difficult.
When you look at the value proposition that associations offer, membership is losing some of its luster because in the past it provided you access to like-minded professionals, because you could network with them and learn from them,” South said. “There are many, many ways to do that now that don’t require membership, but finding really good curated content and experiences that can move you forward in your career in a transformational way is still a premium, and I believe always will be.”
So this post isn’t just about how it seems Walt is on his game so often, or a commentary on the importance of education or nonprofit roles in it for their communities. Those are settled.
The perspective here is going to come from me as someone that has fought the hard fight of a small trade association, specifically on education and certification development.
Scaling Bigs to Smalls
Not a criticism, but typical CEO Update articles focus a lot on the Bigs. Large associations have very different issues and ways of doing things. They have to be run more like a corporation, have a similar mentality but in the context of a mission, and they have a lot of liability which means controls, analytics, processes and big public and customer expectations. Not a bad thing, just what it is and they need to be good at it.
Hearing about the challenges they have and the solutions they find has always been why I read CEO Update. I’ve had the same problems, they just tend to be on a smaller scale and lack significant resources to solve them. I’ve always appreciated the solutions the Bigs have found and seeing them captured in the articles, and tried to scale them down.
Those solutions exist at this end of the spectrum, they’re just more turn-key, hosted solutions or some kind of digital platforms that can be DIYd to MacGyver them into doing what’s needed, and lots of times that’s just great. These solutions aren’t always as shiny as custom-built, although they are getting there, but they can solve relative big problems, significantly improve the member experience, and make stuff work better.
And they cost less, meaning less risk from a bad investment. If something doesn’t work out after a soft-launch then you just try what’s next with what you learned.
It’s a lot easier to say that as an entrepreneurial-minded, flexible small staff CEO than as a CEO of a 20 million dollar association. Rarely have I had the resources to make advancements the proper way, so it becomes a team effort. Lacking resources means getting creative and working as Chief Project Manager instead of CEO sometimes.
I’ve spent more nights doing web-dev and social media, video editing, platform testing, selection and configurations while staff also worked way outside their comfort zones or job descriptions, and rolled out something that worked great. Even if it worked great just for a couple years we could decide to improve or expand, knowing what worked and didn’t, and use feedback from member experiences. Most digital solutions today are built to scale up as you use them more, lessening the chance you’ll outgrow it quickly.
The complication of introducing another variable into a nonprofit’s digital ecosystem ends up causing a domino effect by creating more data, contacts, lists, emails, questions, more things to be missed and problems to solve. In the past this meant you had a Frankenstein system killing productivity, likely frustrating the staff and members, and maybe improved on one problem but made more. Lessons-learned at a minimum!
Today solutions exist for part of this in the form of Application Program Interface (API). These little bits of affordable and available code tell one popular platform how to talk to another. You don’t need to be a programmer to make these things happen, although if you have a skilled programmer APIs can work some automation magic. Yes there are still some fine-tuning limitations between platforms but they’re being worked on and improved all the time.
In the case of the more popular online education platforms (popularity and use breed reliable code) like Thinkific, an administrator connects the integrated LMS native to that system through the API (think of it like a two-way tunnel) with other services, like Salesforce or Hubspot. The education LMS does the job it was designed to do – communicate with, and track progress and accomplishments of the student - and no one needs to export daily spreadsheets, upload contacts, or manage separate lists. Automations can still be set up for confirmation or drip comms so the org looks like a rock star on top of everything. Your main CRM stays up to date.
A couple side comments - Zapier has connective APIs for 3000 well-known apps just like Thinkific – you can view them here. The answer to your next question – you can find security protocol and privacy details here. There are some differences in the robustness of data that can be shared between platforms depending on whether you’re using older or newer version of them. As example, Salesforce Classic has less API functionality than the newer Lightning Experience. There are other avenues to make these things happen but especially if you’re just starting out the more complex programming is likely not even needed.
This is not a pitch for Zapier, just one point of reference. Costs are based on “tasks” performed. A Zapier API connecting Thinkific to Salesforce treats each action of data movement as a task. A student completing a class on Thinkific triggers a notification and sends the data to Salesforce to update their record – that’s one task.
The amount of tasks will be based on the amount that the platform is used. According to the published rates on their website, 100 tasks a month is free, 750 is about $20 per month, 2000 tasks are $50 per month, and lots of available levels up to 2,000,000+ tasks a month top out around $3600. 2M is a lot – if you have that going on you should have a department and multiple staff and don’t need this information from me.
There’s a cost for consistency and convenience, and in this case at the lower to moderate task levels it’s about $0.025 per task. Humans are great but they can’t match that. If limited staff let the technology do the work, they can focus on interpreting, using and acting on the data instead.
We’re getting in the weeds. This wasn’t meant to be about the nitty gritty but it’s helpful to have some references.
Hey Can't We Just...
The point is that any significant improvement in access or functionality that makes a member or user feel things are advancing is a great thing! Members read and hear about this stuff all the time and see it being done elsewhere - they often don’t consider any of the complications and resources it takes to deliver an experience they get from a big provider, or the challenges unique to managing a lot of different sensitivities in the ranks. Their high (often misinformed) expectations can lead to disappointment and then you’ve got other problems. So it’s time to deliver!
There are a lot more small to medium size nonprofits than there are large. They need solutions that make progress on their mission without a lot of staff or money. Knowing what that’s like, my approach was always to use tech in a way that let us fight above our weight class. If you don’t have the people or money, there are now many third-party platforms that make your members think you doubled staff overnight and help you do the job. This opens all kinds of doors to engagement, excitement and progress. Maybe better put - momentum and new branding identity in the form of timely products and services you can offer.
ASAE says an effective onboarding process could increase retention significantly. The same points of value in an external program – documentations, completion tracking, consistent and useful education, can be turned inward to improve everything you do on engagement, governance, volunteer understanding and management.
Education Is In the Mission, Somewhere
Online education makes big strides toward most nonprofit mission objectives focused on serving and empowering their memberships. It also hits almost every department touchpoint if done right. It’s training, marketing, technical, membership recruitment and retention, member engagement and leadership’s value creation.
All the expertise in your sector that resides in your membership is begging to be set loose. Companies and members can’t do the same thing themselves because everything they produce pretty much needs to be about them. Even if they made an “industry-wide” program it’s still about them and carries a bias. They are selling their product or service, and culture or image. The only real broad educational connection is usually to that last part.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to share the expertise. Sharing knowledge among industry professionals raises the bar everywhere, and it works for the volunteer by raising their stock in the industry, and in their company, opening a door to bring good exposure to the member company’s support of the industry. All this helps their brand and the organization’s. It’s no different than a member or volunteer leading a breakout session at a convention.
Taking this same bottomless cup of knowledge online, but leaving behind the bonds of F&B, room rentals, travel costs, scheduling challenges, instructor fees, and more means a lot of cost savings and flexibility for the organization.
Costs IRL v Online
A good manager is going to start doing the math between in-person and online education/training costs. In-person have all the costs and complications mentioned above. Online has ongoing management requirements and the cost of a platform, along with the professional to pull it all together, and the cost of APIs if you want the convenience.
Platforms have become so affordable today that they are almost commoditized and the value is in how they are used, marketed, and set up. Plus if you charge for classes you have the potential for revenue to be coming in every day, or night, rather than limited by your classroom delivery availability.
Publicized costs for full-function platforms like Thinkific and Learnworlds are roughly $50 – 100 / month, and their sales/transaction fees disappear in these upgraded packages. There are lower-function free trial options. You’ll still have transaction fees on credit processing through Stripe or Paypal when someone pays for a class, which are usually around 3%+.30. It is possible to connect external credit processing merchant systems. So base rate of ~$1200/year is less than a catering expense for one large in person class. It’s about equivalent to boxed lunched for 50 people.
Unless your operation is really big to justify their Enterprise level subscriptions, the lower levels should do the things you want. If you realize great success(!) and those levels become insufficient – congratulations you’re program is in demand and you can upgrade again.
I can’t add it up for you because every organization and every educational program is different. Size of audience, number of transactions or “tasks”, availability of program content leading to number of classes. These references are just general, but I think they show that the infrastructure costs of a moderately-sized online education platform to be very manageable for what you get, and able to be offset by purchases or sponsorships.
About Your Content
Conduct a Content Audit. Let’s see what you’ve got to work with. Assemble everything, group it by themes or topics, identify timely or old and content needing update. The focus should obviously align educational topics or areas with your organization’s mission and needs of the stakeholders. Perception of needs can be (in)validated with surveys.
Some examples of really useful content:
Recorded prior classes or breakout sessions you’ve delivered in person or virtually
PowerPoint presentations ideally with a script. Even more ideally with a person that has given the presentation so many times they can get on a Zoom call and just go with it. Hit the record button, all the edits can be done later.
Handouts and study guides, handbooks, checklists, standards, published articles in the organization’s magazine or website, or any other relevant classroom documents that can be made into PDF and linked for download to your online classes in the relevant sections
Recent topical webinars, speakers, virtual conference presentations or talks
Topical podcasts (that you’re authorized to use)
Member content can be useful. They might have some instructional or good topic videos they are willing to provide to build up your library. Again can’t be a commercial, but if they do a great job explaining some non-proprietary task then use it if it will help the student!
Anything you have access to that most people don’t.
I say “topical” on some of these because your virtual town halls are great but they tend to be more connective and relational. They usually aren’t directed at learning a topic. If they are, then they count too! Hopefully you’ve recorded all of them, or you’ll start building your library now (buy some data storage). But if you have webinars and podcasts speaking to a specific topic then they can be a class-oriented deliverable themselves, or play a supporting role as related content for expanded learning, CEUs or just as bonus content on a topic.
Keep Moving Forward
While content audits and compilation are being done, the organization can be thinking about what educational content to create next, staying relevant and informing your community. Just because you have digital learning options doesn’t mean you need to abandon your in-person education. Online education can supplement that, or even prepare students for more advanced in-person classes by satisfying the more basic prerequisites or entry-level class content online, advancing them through your program faster and to higher levels of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Online means you can roll things out pretty quickly in a more consistent and reliable manner. The organization can learn from it, make adjustments, refine and update. Information, best practices and all of it change pretty quickly. Before you had to build all that into your “next” class. Now you finish the update, add it into the materials and publish it to the class that everyone has access to immediately.
Market Your Program
When you do that, it’s fun-time! Press releases, newsletter announcements, social media posts, Calls to Action, web content, extension blog articles on the topic, promotion campaigns and content marketing strategy. All about the program, the content and value, its new availability, investment in learning. Good news you get to promote. A good AMC consultant can help you there too, if you lack the staff. 👋
Maybe all that fun-time leads to some passive revenue to invest in growing the program. You could give access to members only as a loyalty benefit, and/or charge non-members. You can offer one-off purchases of a class, or a monthly subscription (if you plan on creating new monthly content). All of it is set up on the platform and runs mostly autonomously. The more you can promote awareness and engagement, the more it grows.
You might even find that people outside of your “area” sign up for your classes if they’re at a good price point. The Wall Street Journal says large numbers of people are going to quit their jobs and go do what they’ve always wanted after the pandemic. If that means moving toward your nonprofit’s area or industry, you could be the gateway training for them as future workforce development. And probably a future member.
1. Education and training doesn’t need to be only externally directed. As mentioned in the demo most risk-management organizations note the importance of staff and even volunteer/member onboarding that includes training. ASAE says an effective onboarding process could increase retention significantly. The same points of value in an external program – documentations, completion tracking, consistent and useful education, can be turned inward to improve everything you do on engagement, governance, volunteer understanding and management.
2. The video delivery of an online education platform means you can SHOW someone how to do something. If that’s how to turn a wrench, or tie knots on mountain-climbing equipment, or prepare for an interview transitioning from the military to civilian life, video accommodates that. Your video delivery can be a PowerPoint or action to suit your needs.
3. Education can lead to testing. Testing can lead to “certificates” or “certifications.” Those are great value-builders and professional differentiators for those that hold them. If you use your brand new online education platform to support preparation for testing, you can now also build market distinguishing elements around your own brand like logos, recognitions, awards, celebrations or credentials to be earned and displayed by your graduates. Challenge them to keep progressing, and when they get to the top, they’ve earned themselves a spot to possibly be an instructor of a future class. Having operated a substantial annual awards program in the past, we were able to emphasize the importance of the organization’s certifications and their focus on health and safety by adding percentage credits for certification holders in the award project submission criteria. The sky’s the limit on how this can be used, but you need some digital education real estate to get moving on it.
If you can’t swing all this on your own, hire a developer. Or hire us and we can apply an executive perspective and appreciation of interrelatedness of output to mission in the development of an online education program, and supporting marketing for you. Even if that means having us developing the education part of it first. 👋
Been there, done that, want to do it again. Education program development and deployment is a pretty straightforward, managed process that can have a big impact and is fun to be part of.
Thanks Walt for the catalyst.
That did get long, but they do write entire books about this stuff! Your info to use if you want it! Contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to get something started.
Kurt is EVP with Force Multiplier Management. He facilitated the development and deployment of a national ISO-17024 certification testing program in the construction industry, and its related education component for the past 8 years. Creating online education options helped to facilitate access to study and exam prep materials and represented a connective pipeline offering value and engagement especially during early-COVID.