Monday, November 9, 2015

Go Back to School?

I recently read of a new initiative that should be of interest to nonprofit leaders. It's called Philanthropy University, and is being offered online in cooperation with the Haas School of Business at the University of California. What differentiates this effort from others being offered online is first its origins, then its structure and finally its costs.

A Saudi businessman and philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh donated several million dollars a few years ago to create the University that would be based on  "massive online courses" or MOOCs. The University's are offered at no cost to participants. The courses are divided purposely in short segments of about 12 minutes, each over a seven week period, in  order to keep student interest. During those weeks, students can watch as often and at any time during whatever week a class is  offered live. At the end of each week students are given assignments, after which they can move on to the next section in the course.

Topics in courses that began September 29 included fundraising, strategic planning, and financial modeling. Teachers include academics and practitioners.  A complete list and other information can be found  at the web address: Those who complete all seven courses receive a certificate in social sector leadership from  the Haas School of Business at the University of California.

According to Mr.Al-Dabbagh, the goal of Philanthropy University is to give nonprofit leaders tools to more effectively run their organizations.  Enrollments have so far exceeded expectations. Over 200,000 signed up in the first month. An internal goal is to increase the completion rate in this MOOC to about 20 percent, from the industry average of less than 10 percent, by means of the shorter segment design and enhanced content presentation. The first set of courses is underway. I wasn't able to get to them in time. I will enroll for the next slate in late November.

There is a downside to this type of off-site learning. Teachers and some students might miss the personal interaction in the classroom -  the questions and answers, the follow-ups. Some students also enjoy the socialization that occurs in the  room or outside during a break. However, as the University is intent on developing a world-wide student body, there will be nonprofits in remote areas where the University presents a special opportunity. The same might be said of nonprofit leaders in urban areas where the pace of daily work - and even leisure -  limits the time they have for continuing education or, as it often termed, professional development.

Nonprofits' investment of time and resources for their leadership in this important activity is often woefully weak. Employees and the organization each stand to benefit.  Where there is opportunity, some employees, especially those in the higher echelons, cite "I'm too busy" as a reason not to take advantage of the chance to learn anew. Their supervisors should push them out the door or in front of the screen.

Whether Philanthropy University is the answer to ongoing professional development, or part of it, remains to be seen. But as it is easily accessible and free, there is no harm in giving it a try, which I will, and hope you will too. As Benjamin Franklin is to have said: "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.."

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