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Professional development may have taken a backseat to emergency management as most associations learned to navigate their way through a global pandemic, but it’s time to revisit this critical offering. Here’s why professional development is so important and how to find funding for it.

Why Professional Development is Key

The world is ever-changing, moving faster every day. Professional development:

  • Keeps association members and staff up-to-date on your industry
  • Provides training in new, relevant skills 
  • Promotes career growth and opportunity

Consistent professional development that provides relevant training is the best way for an association and its members to remain competitive in their field — no matter how the world changes.

Related: The Real Cost of Ignoring Professional Development Learn More >

Barriers to Professional Development

After time, money is the biggest barrier to professional development. Your membership may be craving new opportunities to learn and expand their skillset but lack the resources to fund conference fees or the cost of travel. Funding professional development for association members and staff reiterates your commitment to the mission of your association. 

Additionally, fully-funded professional development opens membership to previously disenfranchised groups that have typically been underrepresented. The best funding sources offer paid time off and money to cover costs incurred while attending conferences and workshops or participating in online learning.

Here’s how to flip the script, remove the barriers and find funding for professional development.

Access Grants for Funding Professional Development

One of the main tools associations can use to fund professional development is grants. Typically tailored to a specific service area or geographic region, this type of funding does require some legwork but can be an invaluable tool. 

Grants Strengthen and Build Membership

Grants for professional development can be used to offset dues for long-term members. They can also provide travel stipends, increase registration in conferences and supplement some of the cost of annual dues or fees. 

Grants Support Member Needs

For veteran members, grants for professional development can be used to fund registration fees, travel expenses and materials used during presentations. This drives more engagement and makes professional growth and development less cost-prohibitive.

A good example of this is the Association Forum scholarships that cover the cost of preparing for the CAE exam. The Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential is the hallmark of executives who demonstrate a commitment to leading their association in challenging times and funding the preparation for it is a good way to show members more support.

Grants Recruit Newly-minted Professionals to Association Careers

Grants can also help recruit young professionals by offering them a paid pathway into an association career. Internships that are paid through grant money are an attractive alternative to grads looking to gain experience but who are not able to work for free.

For example, Sidecar’s annual conference digitalNow created a Rising Leaders program that helps introduce up-and-coming association leaders to the community by awarding them complimentary registration. 

Not only do scholarships to big events and conferences help broaden that access to professional development for members, but this type of funded training is one way to attract young people looking to make associations their career.

Partner With a Business

If locating, applying for and reporting on grants is proving to be too much of a challenge for your association, consider partnering with a business to fund your professional development. Approach this less as a one-off funding request and more like a long-term business partnership. 

Related: 6 Best Professional Development Resources for Association Pros Learn More >

Ask for Advice

Start by approaching your potential business partner for advice. Figure out how they identify and structure training and professional development. See if they would consider opening some of their trainings to your staff or C-suite to get an idea of how a partnership could benefit both groups.

Explore In-house Professional Development

The needs of the for-profit business and non-profit association often overlap. Ask business partners if they have professional development opportunities your members can take advantage of (and share anything you have upcoming, too). Even if just one staff member is able to sit in on relevant training, this is an opportunity to bring back critical knowledge and skills.

Request Sponsorship 

If your business partner’s team is heading to a conference, request sponsorship for a staff member. In exchange, your staff member can create materials to bring back to both the association and the partner business. This helps everyone get more from the conference and takes the burden off of the business partner when it comes to reporting on the conference.

Other Ways to Maximize Professional Development Funding

If you are just starting to consider all the ways to fund professional development, you'll need to make the most of what you have.

Pinpoint your professional development needs

Going after money just to go after money is not a good strategy for long-term professional development funding success. The first step to maximizing any dollars that come your way is to pinpoint exactly what it is you need. Are you looking to strengthen your IT know-how? Build your membership? Fund leadership programs or staff getting advanced degrees?

Figure out exactly what you need and target your “ask” to funders that can actually help.

Stay local

Instead of starting your funding quest with large corporations or national organizations, stay local. Community-based organizations like to keep dollars in their neighborhoods and may be more inclined to fund specific projects that build capacity close to home. These organizations may also have ties to larger funding opportunities.

Consider Web-based Professional Development

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This is typically more cost-effective and can reach a wider audience with fewer resources. While in-person professional development is an invaluable tool when it comes to truly connecting outside of the association, implementing microlearning tools or taking advantage of things like TechSoup’s free professional development webinars is a good place to start when getting other sources of dunning off the ground.

Adapt an “Each-one Teach-one” Model

If funds are tight and just one team member can go for training, organize an in-house presentation when they return. The trained staff member returns and becomes the expert for the association.

The Bottom Line

The takeaway? There are just six steps to finding funding for your professional development.

  1. Pinpoint the exact areas of professional development you need.
  2. Start by seeking local funding.
  3. Identify relevant grants.
  4. Partner with an area business.
  5. Capitalize on web-based tools.

Professional development is more important than ever before. The most successful associations know how to leverage their staff and members' needs to drive their quest for funding, and they use that funding to make their organization even stronger.

Suzannah Kolbeck
Post by Suzannah Kolbeck
September 1, 2022
Suzannah Kolbeck writes, paints, and rides horses in Baltimore, MD. She is the author of Healing Where You Are: An Introduction to Urban Foraging.