3 Strategies for Effective Nonprofit E-Learning

By Guest Contributor, Amy Morrisey, Artisan E-Learning

Many nonprofits are interested in using e-learning to train staff members and volunteers. It can reach a larger number of people in a shorter amount of time than in-person training. Staff and volunteers can access the training anytime and anywhere. These seem like no-brainers. Why wouldn’t you just jump into e-learning as quickly as possible? The truth is, there are a ton of elements that go into effective nonprofit e-learning, and in order to make sure your e-learning is exactly what your team needs, you have to take some strategies into consideration

Technical aspects such as web accessibility and mobile-friendliness are crucial for an effective course. And, you’ll likely need a learning management system to handle course delivery.

But, e-learning content development professionals will notice one crucial component missing from this list: Content.

You can have the most efficient delivery system, and the best user experience… but if the content isn’t useful, it’s a moot point. So, how can you create effective content for nonprofit e-learning?

1. Write a course that targets what the learner needs.

Take a second to visualize your learners. Who are you creating e-learning content for?

Is it Valerie, the dependable volunteer, or Steve, the staff member who wears multiple hats? Let’s say you’re creating courses for Valerie (or any other volunteer you can visualize).

Now, what does the day-to-day look like for Valerie? She probably has a job, a family, and maybe pets that use some of her time each day. Then, there are her responsibilities as a volunteer, which may look different each time she shows up. Clearly, Valerie is busy. She doesn’t have a ton of time to waste (and, when she does, she probably wants to spend it relaxing. We can’t blame her there!)

What does this have to do with e-learning? Well, in the excitement of creating new e-learning courses, it’s easy to get hung up on all of the shiny details. From the interactive elements you can include, the scenarios you can walk-through…e-learning has evolved. Now, there are so many directions you can take a course that you may get bogged down in the details.

However, it doesn’t matter how cool, or jam-packed with buzz-worthy elements, a course is, if the course isn’t useful for the learner. Valerie isn’t going to appreciate interactive games if they don’t give her actionable, valuable tips. Otherwise, it’s just using up some of her time—which, we’ve already discussed, she doesn’t have a lot of.

So, how do you make sure the e-learning courses you provide to your nonprofit’s staff and volunteers are jam-packed with value? You design courses that specifically target what the learner needs.

Here is a process to help you do so:

  1. Define what the learner needs to change. Do staff members need to develop a skill, such as the ability to recognize and avoid common grammar mistakes? Or, do they need to change their mindset, such as revising their habits and lifestyle to work from home successfully?
  2. Decide how that change happens. Consider which learning activities would lead to the desired change. This could be practice, memorization, motivation, or something else. For example, are there tasks that need to be completed in a certain order for your organization? An activity where learners must demonstrate understanding of the steps followed by feedback about their choices can help change a practice.
  3. Design a course that targets that change. This is where you combine your “what” and your “how” into one effective e-learning course. For the work-from-home example, this could be a simulation that walks through how to design the perfect home workspace.

Take a look at your own calendar for a moment. Do you have extra time to spend on courses that, while fun and interesting, aren’t going to improve your life in a noticeable way? Your staff and volunteers don’t either!

2. Make the course relatable.

Your nonprofit’s staff and volunteers need to relate to any courses you design. They should be able to visualize themselves in the scenes depicted and tips offered, so they can draw a clear line of value between taking that course, and completing their jobs better.

Let’s consider an example: A medical nonprofit is interested in creating a healthcare e-learning course. The goal of the course is to prepare volunteer doctors to provide care in remote locations.

Here are a few ideas we would use to create relatable courses in this scenario:

  1. Scenery and visuals that reflect the organization. For example, rather than showcasing a North American hospital, it would be more valuable to share images of field hospitals in the designated location.
  2. Examples, questions, and scenarios that reflect what the learner will encounter. Are there any new diseases, diagnoses, or social situations that doctors should be aware of in the new location?
  3. Language and conversations that reflect the learner’s experience. Are they going to encounter accents, different languages, or unique dialects that are different from those in their home country?
  4. Characters that look and sound like the people the learner will encounter. What will patients in the designated country be wearing or otherwise look like? How will their fellow volunteers’ uniforms look, if different from standard U.S. uniform standards?

It’s really this simple: If your staff and volunteers can’t relate to content, they won’t learn from it. That said, while the course should be relevant and contextualized—this doesn’t mean that you should abandon your nonprofit’s brand identity in the process. It’s a balancing act!

3. Use examples to drive the point home.

If we gave you a list of instructions with the following information—and only the following information—what would you do?

  1. Write content that learners like.
  2. Assemble content into an interesting course.
  3. Provide the course to learners in an accessible way.

Would you have enough information to make an effective nonprofit e-learning course? Or, would you have questions like: “Who is the learner and what do they ‘like’? What does an ‘interesting’ course include? How do you define ‘accessible way’?”

We could go on. The point is that providing information and instruction isn’t very helpful to learners if you don’t provide specific examples to back it up. Instead, they’ll walk away with more questions than they started with.

Instead of just telling your staff and volunteers new information, show them how that information actually plays out.

Let’s look at an example. The American Red Cross wanted to educate volunteers to fill out key tracking documents, logging the resources that are used in a facility. These documents were complicated, and the information was previously shared through a long PowerPoint presentation. Needless to say, it was hard to learn from the old format!

In its place, we custom developed a course that explained how to fill out the forms and then showed learners how to do so through examples. So, rather than simply saying, “Any meals given after the close of business are logged to the next day,” we walked through how one meal given at 4:45 p.m. would be logged (on the same day).

Now, here are a few tips we recommend to ensure you’re using examples effectively:

  • Use scenarios that have the learner practice. Your staff and volunteers don’t need to be able to just rattle off information. They need to be able to put the information to action. Scenario-based learning is a great way to use examples and provide actionable tips and solutions.
  • Use images of the situations the learner will encounter. Would you have understood the Red Cross example if we didn’t share an image of it? Maybe, but maybe not. Images are an effective way to provide additional context, especially for long, complicated explanations.
  • Walk through examples step-by-step. Don’t just list out examples of the point you’re making. Guide them through each one to make sure they fully understand the point you’re making.

How we tell stories and share information can have a major impact on how it is perceived by the learner. After all, just consider how drastically data visualization can impact how we read graphs and tables! It’s important to share information in as straightforward a manner as possible, and examples are the way to do so.

There are so many important aspects to consider when creating effective e-learning courses, but we’ve found that content is key. Use these strategies to create e-learning content that’s not just interesting or checking a needed box, but actually useful for your team.

Guest Contributor

Amy Morrisey is the President of Artisan E-Learning and serves as Sales & Marketing Manager. Amy started with Artisan as a contract writer/instructional designer. She was our Production Manager for four years and helped the team to double its capacity. As President, she stays focused on maintaining the high standards our clients have grown to expect. She believes that staying close to our clients, our people, and our work is a smart way to do that. One of her favorite things to do in the e-learning world is jump in with a client to write a storyboard that is creative and application-based. Before working with Artisan, Amy spent 17 years in corporate training and development predominantly teaching leadership development and coaching teams and executives. She currently serves on the board of ATD Detroit.

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