Innovative Professional Development: 5 Budget-Friendly Methods for Associations

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Innovative professional development: 5 budget-friendly methods for associations


Maybe your association’s education program is already robust, and your learners are engaged beyond your wildest dreams. If your organization is like so many others out there, though, it’s likely you have room for improvement. Investing in education program development with future-proof technology may not be feasible for all associations. Many face challenges finding affordable technology, staff and volunteer bandwidth, etc., for planning and implementing engaging, learner-centric professional development that is aligned with adult learning principles.  

There is no shortage of advice from professional development experts telling us that members want more learning options, opportunities for career development, personalized learning, convenient access to educational offerings, mentoring and the like, but it can be challenging to break it down into simple, achievable ideas.  

The key is this: Don’t overthink it! There are tactics you can implement with minimal resources to break away from tradition, appeal to various learning styles, involve learners in the content development process, provide career development opportunities, and offer variety in formats and modes of interacting with the content. If your organization is ready to pilot at least one new low-tech idea, consider selecting one of these methods. 

1. Plan a mentor/mentee journey. 

Invite learners to sign up as mentors/mentees within a cohort to take a learning journey together at your next annual meeting. Encourage them to attend sessions they choose together and then bring their insights back to the cohort. If you do not already have a mentorship program, this is one way to start one. This “journey” is a purposeful but loosely structured method to facilitate interaction beyond incidental conversations during networking events. It is about relationship building by leveraging long-time members’ passion for the organization to ignite excitement in the future membership base. 

2. Organize a learning collaborative. 

A learning collaborative brings a group of learners together to participate in a learning activity (some form of training such as a workshop) and keeps the group together to participate in extended discussion over time. This form of blended learning works well with organizations that focus on translational research, in sectors such as academia, scientific, medical, mental health, public policy, public health, community building, etc.  

When learners register for selected workshops or other training, they opt to participate in the learning collaborative cohort. This includes holding follow-up meetings with learners to guide them as they implement research into their practice. Instructors commit to holding a specified set of follow-up virtual meetings to discuss implementation of research protocols. Facebook groups or online community portals can facilitate ongoing discussions. For participants, there is an opportunity to practice what is learned in actual work settings and to benefit from the experience of peers and the valuable guidance from the instructor. For the organization, in addition to adding value to courses and increasing revenue, the learning outcomes from the collaborative help advance its mission and contribute to the body of knowledge within the profession.  

3. Implement flipped learning. 

This is another form of blended learning. Learners are given information before the learning activity such as brief recorded lectures, case studies, curated articles or other problem-solving activities to review. Then, there is a collaborative learning experience (either in person or virtually) in discussing application of knowledge and skills with the instructor and peers. Use digital tools (such as listservs, discussion boards, group chats, etc.) to encourage a continued conversation for next steps in learning and professional growth. 

4. Put out a call for podcasts. 

Here is a fantastic way to build a library of bite-size content aka microlearning: Put out a call for podcasts to your membership. The content of podcasts would be member driven, curated by a group of volunteers. These could be interviews or a single presenter format, speaking on various topics from a subject-matter expert perspective.  

Specify time lengths, technical requirements and topics of interest. Engage volunteers to select and categorize podcast recordings. Push them out to the membership via newsletters or social media channels to engage members, and archive recordings within a topically organized podcast library on your website. Post podcasts in your meeting app and promote a contest for attendees to vote for the winning podcast.  

5. Distribute content via spaced learning. 

Spaced learning is based on repetition of concepts to improve retention. Push out content (via email, social media or a learning management system) such as case studies, diagnostic scenarios or solution challenges that members can interact with on any device and answer knowledge-check questions. Similar content and questions are used in future iterations for long-term learning and recall. If you have the technology to support offering credit, that can be a great incentive. Devise a catchy, clever name for the program and make it something that members look forward to on a weekly or monthly basis. This is a fantastic way to repurpose content into smaller chunks or to engage members in submitting updated content. Be creative. The possibilities are endless. 

BONUS TIP: Host a master class. 

Master classes are one-off, special events that showcase the icons of your professional organization. Invite thought leaders to conduct master classes in topical areas that can be presented and recorded in any format (live/virtual).  

No matter which ideas you try, do not forget to measure engagement and garner feedback on any new initiatives. Take the time to look at your data and improve for next time. Each of these ideas has the advantage of engaging volunteers in giving your members what they need, in ways that all the data on training and professional development tells us that they want it.   

Kismet Saglam, MS Ed., is an MCI USA education consultant and accomplished not-for-profit education professional with over 15 years of experience.