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Nonprofit Cross-training

Last month the Twin Cities Marathon was a must-run event for avid runners like myself. But because of a series of frustrating year-round injuries, I was forced to be just a spectator. I’ve been able to run again in these past few months, but most of 2010 I spent cross-training. Some friends convinced me to swim on a weekly basis, and I continued bike commuting. All of this kept me in some semblance of shape, even if I still struggle to keep up with my running buddies (checkout my blog for more on that).

A major part of any runners training regimen is (or should be) cross-training. Cross-training helps an athlete develop better overall fitness while reducing the potential for injury.

Now, let’s translate that to our work in the nonprofit sector. An organization that encourages cross-training is better able to adapt and maintain optimum performance throughout the year. In this sense, cross-training refers to:

Teaching your employees the skills and responsibilities of another position at your company to increase their effectiveness. Cross-trained employees can fill in when others are ill, on vacation or quit unexpectedly, helping you keep costs down and business moving.

I work for a middle school, and at the beginning of the school year we had three key people out due to unexpected illness. A co-worker and I dove into their work head first. We did the best we could with the knowledge of the systems we had, but we weren’t always using the “approved” mechanisms. It was a time of emergency, and getting the work done was all that mattered. That’s until we started making mistakes.

Things started to catch up to us. Teachers weren’t getting paid right; and as a result, people got a little testy! We eventually got trained and worked things out, but had we been cross-trained or at least had drop-dead Fred binders, we would’ve been able to transition more smoothly.

Besides being used as a fill-in, why cross-train?
I won’t lie. There needs to be dedicated time to cross-train employees properly, but the benefits of cross-training are well worth the time exasperated.

  • Greater understanding of each other. As I took the time to learn about my co-workers roles, I saw how my work ran into theirs and how we could work together to improve both of our work flows.
  • Preventing burnout in current role. Cross-training allows people who may be burning out on their current job to remain loyal and enthusiastic employees by working in other areas of the organization.
  • Getting a new set of tools. Cross-training also provides employees an opportunity to learn new skills, which can make them more valuable in their current job and enhance their own professional development.
  • Realizing new potential. An added benefit to developing new skills is that you may realize you enjoy working in a different niche. This can be a great personal growth moment, while also reducing burnout.

Cross-training will vary pending on the size and structure of the organization. In a small organization, it might be helpful to know how to do fundraising tasks, in addition to your marketing job duties. However, in a larger organization, cross-training might just be learning different functions within your department—grants management in addition to your regular major gifts role.

Through cross-training you will learn new knowledge and skills, meet new people, and increase your understanding of both your organization and how your current role fits within the organization. In my running and professional work, cross-training has allowed me to work more efficiently and effectively while letting me have fun along the way!

Can you turn a co-workers absence into a time to let yourself shine? Share your thoughts. In the case of an unexpected absence:

  • Who would be a logical person to perform your tasks?
  • Whose tasks could you perform?
  • Do you have the necessary knowledge and/or skills?

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