How to Get Your Association to Support Its Staff’s Professional Development

Pick an association website at random and read their About page. Chances are you’ll see something in their mission or values about education. Associations have long been leaders in the lifelong learning business—which is why it’s so shocking to see how few associations support staff’s professional development, according to these survey results from Association Media & Publishing.

support staff’s professional development

You read that right: 81 percent of respondents said their association doesn’t provide enough professional development opportunities for their staff. Sometimes departmental budgets only provide professional development resources for senior-level staff. Middle or lower level staff are out of luck. If your association doesn’t support staff’s professional development, here’s a plan for convincing them otherwise.

Identify the skills and knowledge you want to develop

“Now more than ever, new technologies and industry shake-ups are putting more pressure on professionals to learn new skills,” said Raegan Johnson at Associations Now. Be clear on the skills and knowledge you need to reach your performance goals and/or advance your career. Review position descriptions at your association (including your own position) and at other associations to decide which skills and knowledge you need to:

  • Take your association’s educational programs, program management, or program marketing to the next level.
  • Beat the competition.
  • Better serve learners and members.

Identify the impact new skills and knowledge will make on your job performance, department, and association.

Connect your educational goals to association needs

Align your learning goals—the skills and knowledge you want to develop—with association or department needs. Tie these goals back to:

  • Members and learners: how will your new skills/knowledge improve their membership or learning experience?
  • Your team/department: how will it help your department meet its goals? Resolve problems?
  • The bottom line: how will it increase revenue growth or cost savings?

Understand how you will apply what you’ve learned and the impact it will make on your association.

Research educational options

Once you know what you want to study, explore all formats, both in-person classes, workshops, conferences, and presentations, and online courses, conferences, summits, and webinars. Consider all sources: associations, colleges and universities, industry vendors, for-profit organizations, and MOOCs.

Make notes on curriculum (including learner outcomes), date/time, duration, cost (including travel expenses, if applicable), and registration deadline. Find testimonials or references from others who have taken the same program.

support staff’s professional development

Research HR policies

Know what you’re up against. Review your employee handbook for policies on employee training. Talk to someone in the HR department. Has your association ever paid for an employee’s professional development activities? What were the circumstances? Was the training necessary to perform their job or to advance into a higher position?

Find out who is receiving (or has received) support for professional development at your association. Is there any reason why your request would be denied? Has your boss approved such requests in the past?

Prepare your business case

It’s easy to say “No” to a lackluster request. Show your boss how seriously you take an investment in your professional development by preparing a compelling, professional business case—just like you would if you were lobbying for a new LMS.

Adapt your case to their preferences for taking in new information. If they’re a “get to the point” type, prepare concise talking (or bullet) points. If they prefer narrative, provide more context. Prepare both verbal and print versions of your business case.

If you need help, see if there’s a “convince your boss” page on the conference or training organization’s website. If not, ask them for help with talking points. See if you can find any testimonials or referrals from someone at a similar organization or in a similar position.

Lay out the ROI

Take the focus of the presentation away from you. Make it about the benefits for your association and department. For example, explain how this learning experience will help the department:

  • Implement more effective processes and tactics.
  • Take on new projects.
  • Prevent issues or solve problems.
  • Attract new market segments.
  • Expand program capabilities and increase revenue.
  • Keep up with and ahead of the competition.
  • Meet its goals.

Offer to share your new skills and knowledge with others on your team—describe these “trickle down” benefits. You could plan some brown-bag lunches or coffee break presentations. Teaching others will also help the learning stick.

Anticipate objections 

Anticipate your supervisor’s questions or concerns.

What’s in it for us? Make the ROI for your department and association the focus on your argument and they won’t have to wonder.

Is there a cheaper way to develop the skills you need? Head this question off by describing the alternatives you considered and why they’re less desirable or effective. You could also sandwich your preferred option between a less expensive and more expensive choice.

Who will take care of your work while you’re gone? Be ready to talk about coverage. What usually happens when you’re sick or on vacation?

What are you expecting afterwards—a raise or promotion? If they bring this up, you can say you wouldn’t expect a raise or promotion just because you took a course. A raise or promotion would be based upon your performance, right?

What if they invest in you and then you leave them for another job? Talk about how you will apply what you’ve learned in this job. If necessary, reassure them that you wouldn’t leave an employer who’s dedicated to your professional growth. They can read between the lines. Satisfied, motivated employees who feel appreciated and have opportunities to grow are less likely to leave a good employer.

What if their boss doesn’t believe this is a worthy expense? What if your boss don’t get support for their own professional development? Help your boss get what they need and perhaps you’ll get what you need too.

support staff’s professional development

Prepare for negotiation

Make sure the timing of your program doesn’t conflict with the department or association schedule. Should you ask for time off during the work day or do everything on your own time? Figure out how your work will get done if you ask for time off. If your boss worries about this, they might default to “No.”

If money is the issue, an online program might be less expensive and easier to approve than a more expensive in-person program. If necessary, show you’re willing to put your own skin in the game by paying for some of it yourself.

If you’re the first employee to ever approach them with this type of request, start small, for example, with a subscription or webinar, and build up their trust and comfort level before you ask them to fund a more expensive program.

Schedule the conversation

Ask to add this discussion to the agenda for your next scheduled one-on-one meeting. Whatever you do, don’t make this request in front of other people. Or, you could mention the program and ask to schedule time to discuss it further.

Avoid having this conversation during high stress times when it’s easier for your boss to dismiss a topic than spend energy on a decision.

Consider the budget cycle. There’s no use asking for money when everything is already allocated or spent. Make your request early enough so funds can be built into next year’s budget.

After your conversation, send an email thanking your boss for their time and reemphasizing the impact your new skills and knowledge will make.

If you get a “Yes”

Thank your boss (and any other decision-makers) in person and in writing. Throughout the program, point out what you’re learning and how you plan to apply it.

After the program, talk about the value you received from your association’s generosity and willingness to support your professional development. Demonstrate the ROI you promised. Make a plan to share what you’ve learned with others on the team.

If you get a “No”

Ask why your request wasn’t approved. You may find out that you missed something in your presentation, or didn’t make a strong enough connection between the training and your responsibilities or the association’s goals.

If money was the issue, ask if a less expensive option might be possible.

If the timing was the issue, ask when a better time might be.

Get a sense for who’s really saying “No”—your boss or someone else. If it’s someone else and your boss is on your side, see if they have any ideas on how to approach the request in another way. Is it a “No, not right now” or a “No, not ever?”

What can you do to help decision-makers adopt a new mindset about professional development? One idea is to ask your boss if you could work on a campaign to help members convince their employers to fund professional development. The contrast between your association messaging and association culture might draw light to the hypocrisy and help change some minds at the top.

If there’s truly no hope in getting your association to support staff’s professional development, take this as a sign that it’s time for you to start looking for a new job with an organization that values their employees’ professional growth.

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