Staff Training in Tight Times

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Bellingham, Wash.—When a recession hits, budget cuts commonly decimate training and staff development at youth service agencies. But Northwest Youth Services here has not only emphasized staff training during the recession, but has joined another nonprofit in launching a staff training institute that it hopes will turn a profit.

Beginning the institute was “a calculated risk,” says Northwest Training Director John Korsmo. It is a risk that offers lessons for other agencies about how to maintain staff training.

The new nonprofit, the Northwest Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (NINE), offered its first five classes in December and expects to have trained more than 110 professionals and volunteers by the end of February. Northwest and its partner, Whatcom Opportunity Council, plan to spend $15,000 a year each on the effort and are seeking grants, with hopes of breaking even in two years.

The broad goal is to raise standards for in-service training and professional development among nonprofit and volunteer agencies in and around this city of 67,000, about 80 miles north of Seattle. But Northwest Executive Director David Webster also hopes NINE will eventually make enough money to help support the agency itself.

That strategy flies in the face of common practice among youth agencies, says Leonard Lamkin, former director of the youth work training center at Youth Outreach Services in Chicago.

“Nationally, as budgets get cut, [direct service agencies] don’t have enough staff to afford to send staff to training and also cover their programs,” says Lamkin, who now works on underage drinking legislation for the American Medical Association. “And it costs money to send people for professional development.”

Instead, most agencies “become on-the-job training grounds. Then, when people are burned out, they leave because they’re not getting the professional development they need,” Lamkin says.

But Webster says training need not be jettisoned to keep programs going in lean years. He has maintained a $12,000 annual training budget (not including Korsmo’s salary) for his 45 staff members (24 full-time) during the hard times of the early 2000s. In addition, Webster says Northwest gets about half its training for free or through other expenses.

“I have never been part of an organization that offers so much [training] for the staff at essentially no cost,” says Korsmo, who has worked at and consulted for dozens of youth-serving agencies over the past 14 years.

Thanks for Griping

Northwest began in 1976 as a teen runaway program and homeless youth shelter, which it still operates. Today, 60 to 70 percent of its $2.2 million annual budget comes from Washington state, and another 10 to 12 percent comes through federal homeless and runaway youth programs. The agency provides treatment foster care, a transitional living program for young people too old for foster care, and a sliding-fee family counseling program. It contracts with the state to offer family reconciliation and preservation counseling, and it runs a teen court.

Northwest might be unusually positioned to emphasize training and launch a training institute, because Bellingham is a college town, home to Western Washington University, which provides a highly educated labor pool. Korsmo says the agency has an unusually high-caliber staff, with a respect for in-service training.

Complaints from the staff helped give birth to NINE. Webster heard staffers talk about what a waste of time it was to drive through metropolitan traffic to get to training sessions hours away in Seattle. He discussed it with Kay Sardo, executive director of Whatcom Opportunity Council, who said her staff was saying the same thing. The council, also based in Bellingham, is a “community action agency” offering programs for homeless and low-income families, children, seniors and people with disabilities.

The two chiefs ordered market research that confirmed a hunch: A number of agencies in the region wanted training and would pay for it.

Webster had, “in a prior life,” been a trainer and management consultant to nonprofits around the country, particularly youth-serving agencies. That included conflict management training at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Youth Work Learning Center, a national leader in youth worker training, founded by Mark Krueger. Korsmo was responsible for the center’s continuing education program.

Webster says that when he decided to launch NINE, “I needed someone who could hit the ground running. What do you do in those situations? You steal a good person.” He hired Korsmo from Milwaukee in October 2003.

Most of the training takes place at a variety of locations, including the client agencies and rented and bartered office space. Korsmo says NINE will “broker” training that it cannot provide directly and offer on-site consultations in organizational development – from executive education and administrative leadership to front-line training and even individualized consultations. NINE focuses on but is not limited to nonprofits.

NINE’s 33 courses range from a series for direct-service youth workers to fund development and fiscal management. It specializes in areas like supervision, hiring, business ethics and diversity. Korsmo is trying to sell that expertise to schools, PTAs and credit unions.

The training fees range from $39 for a half-day or less to between $200 and $300 for multi-part series covering areas such as supervision.

Through Jan. 31, NINE had incurred $32,600 in expenses (including the advanced market study) and taken in $25,600, Webster says. To balance the budget by the end of the fiscal year (June 30), NINE projects that it would need $40,000 in earned revenue. “We remain optimistic,” he says.

To break even in the second year without more subsidies from the founding agencies, Webster projects, the institute would need to conduct 1,600 “training units.” (A unit is one person trained for a half-day.)

Does it pay off for the workers who get trained? Korsmo had been at Northwest a couple of months when he met Juanita Jefferson, a leader of the nearby Lummi Tribe of Coast Salish people and chair of Lummi C.E.D.A.R., a nonprofit youth health project. Jefferson had been wondering how to get tribal members to discuss child sexual abuse when she happened to sign up for Korsmo’s cultural diversity training.

Aside from the lessons, Jefferson found incredible value in talking about family and sexual abuse issues with other female youth workers in the class, including a white foster mother who was caring for eight Indian children. Jefferson says those connections seemed heaven-sent; the training was everything she had hoped for.

How to …

For agencies that aren’t about to send staff to Bellingham, but want to sustain or increase training, Webster has several suggestions:

• Make no easy chops: Defend the training budget from competing demands. When telling staff to reduce expenses, it is unacceptable for a program manager to return a budget with the training portion decimated. “We’d kick that back,” he says. “We don’t let people make that the easy chop.”

• Find free training: Be they police officers, legal professionals or human resource management experts, local and regional professionals have knowledge and experience to share. “People who are good at what they do usually love to teach others,” Webster says. Suggest that they make a tax-deductible donation of teaching in lieu of a cash contribution to your agency.
At Northwest, the fire department has sent people to train staff in emergency preparedness, and a state equal opportunities officer ran a session on diversity in the workplace.

• Double-Dip: Find cost-effective ways to train staff while accomplishing other agency goals. For example, the two partner agencies in NINE reserve three spots apiece at each NINE workshop for their own personnel, and the institute serves three purposes: It earns outside revenue, trains the sponsoring agencies’ personnel and elevates the standard of professionalism throughout the region.

• Barter: Webster barters with other agencies for training. He loans staff to teach in their areas of expertise in exchange for similar services. A Northwest staffer who is a specialist in attachment disorders exchanged training with an agency that sent an instructor to Northwest to train staff about alcohol and chemical addiction.

• Collaborate: When workers at Northwest think about first aid training and related skills, and topics such as sexual harassment, diversity and mandatory reporting of child abuse, they look to cut costs and planning by working with other agencies. They often conduct trainings jointly and share overhead and expenses. Webster says opportunities arise when he and his staff participate in meetings and activities with a local grantsmanship center and with local and regional human service networks.

• Pay your dues: Paying membership dues for organizations is often the first item to go when budget cuts are made. Too bad, says Webster, because the right memberships can be a valuable source of low-cost training. By belonging to the Seattle-based Northwest Network for Youth, his staff gets advocacy and technical assistance training through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. Webster says his agency’s $400 annual membership in the United Way includes monthly staff trainings. And the few hundred dollars a year in dues for the Washington State Homeless Coalition includes training in case management techniques and community resource referrals.

Contact: Northwest Youth Services (360) 734-9862,