Transforming L&D in the charity sector

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Martin Baker is the founder and CEO of the Charity Learning Consortium and the Clear Lessons video library. As an ambassador for charity sector L&D, we spoke to Martin about how the core challenge around budget can be played as a strength since it requires charities to think creatively, share knowledge and focus on people, rather than the latest tech trend.

What led you to set up the Charity Learning Consortium, and what are its key objectives today?

Back in 2001 the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now called Action on Hearing Loss) asked me for a quote for corporate eLearning, and they fell off their chairs laughing when I told them the price. At the time eLearning just wasn’t affordable for charities. But I had this crazy idea, that if I could get 10 charities together, they could share the cost.

By 2006, I only had six charities in a pilot group, but I made the decision to do it anyway. It was my best decision ever and has been my way of giving something back.

There were quite a few challenges to get around. I had to source new content to make it affordable, so I teamed up with Jension (now known as MicroLearn) which has been a fantastic, ongoing relationship.

I also had to make eLearning accessible. At the time most charities didn’t have the resources to self host, so I had to come up with a manageable, cost-effective solution. We now have a dedicated technology team that is constantly refining our learning management system.

We now have almost 140 charity members and provide eLearning to well over a million third sector staff and volunteers. Our objectives are, as they have always been, to provide high-quality content at an affordable price, while offering a community where members can collaborate and share resources and best practice.

I love working with charities, as they have a real ‘can do’ attitude. They’re great at responding to need. Faced with a challenge, they roll up their sleeves and tackle it.

How do you ensure that the L&D content and programmes you distribute to charities is of the highest quality and kept up to date?

We partner with MicroLearn and Litmos Heroes to provide our core eLearning content. They use a wide range of subject matter experts and have a rigorous quality control process. Courses are also held in the cloud so any legislation updates, for example, can easily be made. Changes then automatically update to all of our members’ content. It’s great to be able to use the cloud in this way.

We’re also uniquely placed to listen to what our members both need and want and we pass that information on to our partners to keep content relevant. For example, new content topics, such as Safeguarding for Children and Vulnerable Adults, have come directly from members’ requests.

You recently announced the winners of the annual Charity Learning Awards 2018. What are some of the key players within charity sector L&D doing to bolster skills among their workforce?

New GDPR regulations meant that 2018 was a particularly challenging year for charity L&D. To put that into context, a charity like Citizens Advice has 23,000 volunteers, which all have to go through GDPR training.

An obvious solution to that kind of challenge is eLearning. But what links all of our winners together is what I would call the ‘human touch’ – it’s people, not technology or budget, that makes an L&D initiative a success.

In the case of Citizens Advice, L&D staff worked on a rota system to support those going through GDPR training – they had 9,000 people using GDPR eLearning in two months alone. As another example, SSAFA – the armed forces charity – created their own GDPR eLearning course, which was the first eLearning course they had ever created.

I love working with charities, as they have a real ‘can do’ attitude. They’re great at responding to need. Faced with a challenge, they roll up their sleeves and tackle it.

How beneficial is the community and knowledge sharing aspect of the Charity Learning Consortium?

Getting members together for our quarterly events is where the magic of the Consortium happens. We always have a case study, and members are great at sharing both what worked and crucially what didn’t.

I always say that no matter what challenges each individual member is facing, there will be someone in the room that is either facing a similar challenge, or has already been through it – find them, and find out what worked for them. Why reinvent the wheel?

One reason for its success is that the community really is ‘for the members, by the members’. We work very much in partnership, their ideas shape our agenda and we encourage them to get actively involved.

It doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are, it’s always people – and not technology or budget – that makes L&D a success.

The learning technologies market is expanding at a rapid pace. Do you see this as an opportunity to transform L&D among charities or will these products be difficult to tap into?

It all depends on the technology and how much it costs. When it comes to virtual reality and artificial intelligence, yes, charities may find it difficult to tap into these, unless they can piggyback other people’s projects, or have specific sponsors.

On the other hand, technology has made connecting with people virtually – often across the world – affordable, with online classrooms, video conferencing and webinars. And the wealth of free resources, like MOOCs and VOOCs, TED Talks and the Clear Lessons Foundation, is constantly expanding, so there are great opportunities for charity L&D. The challenge now is to find relevant, high quality, trusted resources, so curation is key.

Ultimately online learning allows charity workers to spend more time and money on their causes and less time in the classroom or travelling. So a digital approach to developing the skills of the sector is a no brainer.

Are there any unique challenges that L&D faces within the charity sector? If so, how do you endeavour to overcome these?

The greatest challenge that charities face is always going to be budget. But there are some real silver linings to this. Big organisations with big budgets can be drawn to the latest shiny new technology, without thinking first whether it’s what their people both want or need.

I dread to think how much money we have wasted as a society on learning technology projects that haven’t worked out, for whatever reason.

Every year the winners of the Charity Learning Awards are proof that having no budget is not a barrier to L&D success. In my experience, charities first work with what they have, then look at what they’d like to have, and find a way to replicate it with little or no budget. It’s truly amazing what our members have achieved.

Finally, what could L&D practitioners within other sectors learn from the work you do at the Charity Learning Consortium?

  • First and foremost to share. Collaboration is at the heart of everything that we do – whether that’s with partners, our charity members, or a whole range of organisations that we have worked with over the years that have helped us on our way. Together you are stronger than on your own.

  • It doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are, it’s always people – and not technology or budget – that makes L&D a success.

  • Be innovative and creative in your approach. Work with what you have first, and try to improve it. Think outside of the box – don’t just bring in consultants, trainers, coaches. Find the talent within your organisation to support colleagues. Once you start to look, you’ll be amazed at what you have already.

About Becky Norman

Becky Norman

Becky is Editor of HRZone and Trainingzone, global online communities of people working in the HR and L&D industries. Becky works closely with leading HR and L&D practitioners and decision makers to ensure the publications offer a rich source of real-world insight and fresh advice to their audience.

HR and L&D professionals today must adapt to a complex mix of challenges caused by ongoing business disruption, technological advancements, a changing political landscape, varied employee needs and more. Becky aspires to make HRZone and TrainingZone the destinations for professionals to seek guidance, analysis and opinion on how to tackle these challenges and continue to deliver value.

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