Nonprofits Transitioning to Online Course Delivery

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We work with many nonprofit organizations that are trying to move their value-delivery — that is, their training, courses, and workshops — online. In this article, I use such a framework to analyze the value that attendees get from face-to-face events and then discuss how these events might be moved online while simultaneously increasing their value by improving both the access to and the effectiveness of their training.

Many nonprofit organizations (NPOs) have successfully delivered their value and connected with their audiences in person for years, if not decades. In the last few years, an increasing number of these organizations have felt the pull of the online world, one becoming richer all the time thanks to improved technologies and the pedagogies that depend on them. NPOs such as Grads of Life, New Teacher Center, and APPR have created rich online learning experiences that have enabled increased scale while removing their dependence on face-to-face delivery. Recently, organizations that had not yet taken that step were struck hard by the closures associated with the pandemic. Most guidance for these leaders related to moving training, workshops, or courses online has focused on learning management system-focused solutions that are mostly about the in-course experience; the problem is bigger than that. Leaders are short-changing the potential value propositions of their organizations if they don’t include the wide scope of that value and how it might be provided.

Scope of services

Most NPOs that I connect with deliver much of their value through in-person events (courses, workshops, training), so this is what I will focus on here. For a leader looking to transition because of the pandemic, the trap associated with these events is that viewing them as “information dissemination” — which seems so close to “courses” — distracts the leader from thinking about the multiple ways that the NPO provides value within and related to these events.  

Vincent Tinto, beginning back in the mid-1970s, defined a model of student retention for higher education.  It defines four sets of interactions in a 2-by-2 matrix:

Tinto’s Model of Student Retention
  Formal Informal
Academic Systems Academic performance Faculty/staff interaction
Social Systems Extracurricular activities Peer-group interactions

We will just modify some terminology but use his framework to guide our thinking. Here we are thinking of retention not for students in higher education but for attendees of NPO courses. This model provides a great starting point for the problem that we have in front of us: What types of value does an NPO provide related to its gathering events?

Academic|Formal: Academic performance

The first set of interactions relate to academic performance. This relates to the need of the NPO to deliver valuable learning within its events. This is the most obvious, though still difficult, part of the value-delivering process that fortunately has a fairly well-defined set of professionals who have been trained to address it. Many Learning Experience (LX) professionals have been trained to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) — typically the NPO’s professionals — to create effective and engaging online learning experiences. Online pedagogy and its enabling technologies have progressed to the point that this part of the value proposition should be the least of a leader’s worries. This is not to say that it will not be hard to address, just that a solid set of practices and processes can be put in place to address it.

Academic|Informal: Faculty/staff interactions

The second set of interactions relate to SME/staff interactions. This relates to the attendee’s desire to speak with an SME outside the scope of the course or event itself. This might occur at a face-to-face meeting, right before or after a session. The attendee might have other conversations with SMEs and NPO staff during or after the event. 

For some NPOs, value is also provided to the SMEs and staff members. The event can provide them all with an opportunity to talk with their peers, possibly across organizational boundaries (e.g., geography or specialty). In addition, it can provide opportunities for SMEs and staff to attend the sessions of other SMEs as a way to stay up on the NPO’s activities or get cross-trained.

Social|Formal: Extracurricular activities

The third set of interactions is extracurricular activities. These activities are organized by the NPO itself but are not directly related to the delivery of its mission within the event. This might include a tour of their offices, introduction to associated organizations in the area, sponsored dinners or cocktail parties, and so on. The focus for these activities is on providing additional opportunities for attendees to build their network and to build a community around like-minded people.

Social|Informal: Peer-group interactions

The fourth and final set of interactions that we focus on are peer-group interactions. This is the most diverse set of activities. Though relatively invisible to the NPO, these can be extremely valuable and could actually be the dimension that keeps attendees engaged with the NPO and its events over time. Think of the variety of ways that peers interact with each other while at a conference:

  • Hallway conversations
  • Networking sessions
  • Birds-of-a-feather meetings
  • Meal conversations
  • Discussions before, after, and even during sessions

Most of these do not appear on any conference schedule but many attendees would likely agree that these are the reason that they attend the events in the first place. While an NPO’s event might not have the scale of a conference, people are always looking to connect with others who are like-minded. The more the NPO can facilitate these connections at its events, the more it will be valued by the attendees.

Providing these services online

None of the above is necessarily surprising to NPO leaders or anyone who is involved with the NPO’s events. However, it is easy for much of this to be lost when thinking about moving an NPO’s events online, either under time constraints (as with the pandemic) or budgetary constraints (always)

When moving online, the path of least resistance involves creating “courses” in a standard learning management system (LMS) and providing Zoom for any synchronous communication needs. Certainly, a need exists for both synchronous and asynchronous events and communication; that is not to be denied. And this solution would probably be better than not delivering any courses. Unfortunately, typical LMSs compartmentalize the learning while also forcing a formalization of communication patterns—the dreaded “discussion forum” tool—that minimizes the dynamism of NPO events. 

The NPO leader has to resist the call to film a play and call it a movie. The move online needs to take advantage of the affordances of digital—this means collecting (and then analyzing) data as frequently as possible, providing different modes of communicating and learning that are enabled by and amplified by the move online, and taking advantage of the limited impact of geographic and physical constraints. 

As emphasized above in the initial analysis, highly permeable borders exist among all of the different types of learning and community-building activities at a face-to-face event. Just because an attendee is in a workshop (Academic/Formal), it does not follow that she is not also talking with a peer (Social/Informal). While the event’s structure does not have to transfer directly online, the NPO should recognize that when it is creating an online replacement for the physical event, possible attendees will be looking for those valuable learning and connecting opportunities, in one form or another, whether or not the NPO continues to provide them. An NPO leader who is able to create an online presence (and associated events) that encourages and enables those learning and connecting opportunities will survive and thrive in the pandemic and post-pandemic world.

It is not an easy task to take an organization and its events online. Physical co-location has enabled many valuable benefits to accrue to attendees of NPO-sponsored events. Transitioning to online takes an investment of time, money, and leadership in order to see it through. Set up a conversation with me so that we can talk about the challenges that your organization faces.

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Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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