Training Experience

Most training participants counted this opportunity among the highest quality, most interactive and most useful training sessions they have experienced.

Most interview subjects were very pleased with their training experience, and even those who offered critiques characterized this particular training experience as the best or one of the best they have ever attended. At least one respondent called the experience “transformative.”

Those who found the training to be extraordinarily useful or “transformative,” tended to be in the midst of a positive transition, e.g., the launch of a new organization or program, the integration of a new leader, a new infusion of resources or the start of a new strategic plan.

Many participants—particularly executive leaders—reported that training’s greatest benefit was in building of awareness and appreciation of the value of communications, and of cultivating the motivation to more fully support this function.

Highly valued aspects of training included the caliber of speakers; the ability to leave the home office for a significant period of time to focus intensely on communications; and the opportunity to network with peers to understand others’ approaches, successes and disappointments relative to communications.

Interview subjects suggested that the nonprofit professionals most suited to participate in training of this type include executive leaders, program and development professionals, and less experienced communications professionals. Seasoned communications professionals, they said, may find the training to be review, but these staff members might help themselves and their organizations by participating in the training alongside team members and leaders with less communications experience—helping them activate lessons learned in training and cultivating greater support of communications.

Interview subjects strongly recommended that more than one person from an organization attend training. This perspective was shared by people who attended in groups and by those who attended alone and wished they had been joined by at least one other person from their organizations.

At the end of each training session, technical assistance was offered as a primary way to help organizations carry lessons learned into their day-to-day-work. Most interviewed said that follow-up of some form is essential to reinforcing lessons learned, and a few individuals confirmed that technical assistance helped in this way. Many found technical assistance to be less accessible and wished for a more robust system of follow-up on training. Some suggested that use of follow-up technical assistance be more strongly encouraged or enforced. Some suggested other means of follow-up, including periodic refresher courses, the availability of more advanced coursework, and intentional communications conversations with Foundation program officers. To highlight the need for greater follow-up, at least three individuals expressed that the interview phone call itself was a useful reminder of lessons learned in training.

Additional critiques of the training included over-emphasis on the Smart Chart tool, which some participants felt was a poor fit for their work; large size of the training group, leaving some to wish for greater one-on-one time with coaches; as well as too much participant diversity in terms of mission, scope and skill level. Some with advanced communications skills felt that the value of their experience was diminished by the beginner coursework needed by many lower-skill participants. Advanced organizations viewed the training as a review or refresher of their existing knowledge. While many said they appreciated the ability to network with peers on the topic of communications, they would prefer to work with organizations more like their own—in hopes that they might arrive at communications solutions highly relevant to all.

Most training participants offered at least one of the critiques noted above, and many cautioned that training alone does not build greater communications capacity (and therefore impact). Still, most placed high value on their training experience and would (and do) whole-heartedly recommend it to others. Many perceived the training as a rare opportunity to build understanding and capacity in an area of importance and wish additional intensive developmental opportunities like this one were available.


Overall value

It was worthwhile. It was transformative as very few things are.

It was definitely valuable. I haven’t been to a training since of greater value.

Very high value. It was definitely one of the more stimulating trainings ever.

Before we went to training, I already knew communications was important. I just didn’t have a lot of the skills to help implement it. (executive leader)

Training gave me more focus and gave me some tools. (executive leader)

Our takeaways were mainly to have a sense that there are still some basics in communications that everybody needs to practice, but with technology there are new ways to think about and approach communications. Training opened us up and got us thinking.

Coming into the training, I was in a beginner communications stage, both in terms of planning and implementation. One of my big takeaways was understanding communications’ potential impact to drive our organization and also to drive the mission itself. For example, it helped us realize our focus on _____. (executive leader)

It’s hard to make a one-to-one connection. I assume that the learning has helped the two of us [who participated] to be more effective, and we could extrapolate that we’ve in turn helped build the organization’s effectiveness. I can say that it didn’t hurt!

It’s hard to say. [Training] was more of a motivator than anything else.

If I could send the other staff here I would, partly because it’s a great awareness builder—I think that’s one of the key benefits of it.

Organizational potential for transformation

The Hewlett Foundation needs to decide which organizations to send and whether these organizations will be able to put lessons learned in training into play afterward.

I think that the influence of the training … the tipping point came after I identified a funding source and brought in a consultant to do an internal audit and assessment of the communications and to create the 2007 communications plan.

When my Hewlett program officer suggested training, I was right in the middle of this big campaign and of getting a $_____ state budget. I found myself asking questions about every tactic, asking about the larger strategic goals preceding it.

Training hit home the value of communications, [which] is the reason we went to a consultant. [Because of training], we went into it [messaging work] having thought about who our audiences were. This enabled us to work more effectively.

When we launched four years ago, we knew … that we needed to be selective about the focus of our communications. By the time I did the Hewlett training, I had some sense of our model, our important constituents and the segments… and had begun to speculate about the communications tools that would be most effective.

[I’d recommend the training to organizations] at right place in their life cycles… they should have at least one person in communications and have bandwidth. You also need clarity around your vision and theory of change.

Engagement with peers

[Most valuable was] talking with organizations who are going through some of the same things and sharing things with them.

It’s great to work with other people from other organizations. That’s extremely valuable. In my role, I spend a lot of time with people [in my own organization], but sometimes I don’t get the chance to talk with people in other worlds.

Most important was the chance to interact with my peers—to find out what worked for them and what didn’t. Most of what was in training I was [already] highly aware of.

The evenings and dinner were very collegial. I’ve never been in a situation where I gained so much from informal networking. Really quality people working on communications to advance their missions. Hewlett created an atmosphere that made that possible.

Time to focus away from home base

It was nice to get out of the office for a couple of days and focus with like-minded people, colleagues from other organizations. Even in [other] afternoon trainings, you’re still tethered to the office and it’s difficult to focus.

It was a great training, and good to focus on communications for a few days.

It was helpful to go away for three or four days as opposed to spending one hour taking a webinar and then trying to put that to use.

Roles suited to participate

[Training is] probably more geared toward the… executive level, but I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to that either. (executive director)

I think it would be great for our program people because they could be more familiar with the communications process, how it comes together, and particularly strategy on messages.

Yes, was the right person. At the time I was the acting director of communications. I think it was really helpful to me and to the organization.

Our communications director went—he didn’t feel that it was incredibly helpful. As a professional in that area, it was nothing new for him.

I think that [our communications director] may be overqualified for some of it, but… you don’t know everything, and the teamwork is valuable.

For someone who is pretty savvy, I’m not sure [how valuable the training is]. It’s valuable when a savvy person goes with another staff member.

I’d recommend the training to people who are not familiar with communications work.

We were the most receptive people, but maybe sending someone more senior would have helped us with buy-in. (policy advisor who attended with a lead organizer)

Leader learning is often neglected. If you work up through the ranks, you may not have any communications background.

Value of team participation

People in my cohort who seemed to benefit the most were the ones who came in pairs, where they had an executive director and a communications staff person and could process what they were learning immediately and had the capacity as an organization to think about impact.

It would have been better if I had not gone by myself.

Having one other person that would have gone and been part of things would have allowed us… to keep each other accountable. It’s difficult to keep it going when only one person attends. (executive director)

I’m one of eight communications staff. Two have been through [the training] and others have benefited through second-handoff.

Coaching/technical assistance and other follow-up

I think [coaching/TA] helped keep the training alive in my day-to-day work life—that really is an issue for an executive director juggling everything.

We’ve used our TA to have a person from [training firm] help craft our blog outreach strategy. We also had [training firm] folks come and go through the Smart Chart with our whole team.

I spoke with someone on audience segmenting, tailoring message. [This assistance] was worth the time. It wasn’t transformational, but it was insightful and helpful.

[We used the coaching/TA, but it] was very limited. We had a few questions answered over the phone by a consultant.

We asked for [coaching/TA] and didn’t get it. We sent a list of questions and it didn’t go anywhere.

It’s not that I didn’t want to [take advantage of coaching/TA]. It was a matter of getting back to the office, getting back to work and then not really remembering the phone number or code… not getting around to it.

[Why coaching/TA was not used:] I know we had good intentions but then we went back to work and craziness takes over.

I don’t really remember the opportunity to do [coaching/TA]. I remember maybe an email reminder to use the Smart Chart. I would have taken advantage of an opportunity for individual coaching if that would have been available.

No. I didn’t understand [coaching/TA] was available.

We were right in the middle of [planning what] to do with our website—I didn’t hear that as an option for coaching.

[We didn’t use coaching/TA because] We felt that our organization was in good enough shape. I’ve been in the communications field for over 30 years.

If coaching is the follow-up, I think they should start coaching together in the week of training. Coaching afterward felt like a tack-on. It needed a through-line. I am pragmatic. I like to feel like I’m getting some of my job done and not just getting a lot of information.

It’s easier to do things at “camp” than it is to bring them home—that’s harder. If I could recommend one thing it would be a closer and follow-up: What could have been done immediately and soon after to reinforce [lessons learned] once you go back to the office? Something systematic.

Having this conversation has been a good reminder and refresher on [what was learned in training]. It makes me think that a little more attention to follow-up would be great. We might have taken advantage of TA had they taken more initiative. Even a check-in a couple months after training.

I have to say that I barely remember the content. It was five or six years ago, so it would be amazing if I did.

[Did others who did not attend training benefit?] Very marginally. Sharing was difficult. People weren’t sure what they were supposed to do with it.

I brought back energy, but our culture is to deal with immediate issues all the time.

[Suggestion:] I wonder if training principles could be integrated into Hewlett’s grant process… Maybe somehow hold grantees accountable to the lessons learned in training, making a component of the grant money tied to communications.

Too much emphasis on specific tools

[The Smart Chart and other products used in training] worked for some, and not for others. For me they were just okay… A lot of time was spent on these tools versus thinking about the planning piece more generally and then landing on various outputs that would work for various leadership styles.”

Size of training group

The group was a little big. There were really good speakers, but I was one of maybe 70 and interaction with [the speakers] was limited.

I’d make more time at the end for one-on-one consultation. There was not enough time to do that and for our kind of issues… We did some of that, but mostly around the Smart Chart. I’d rather have the participants bring their issues prepared ahead of time to work through in a block of time with somebody.

It would have been nice to have more one-on-one time with the trainers. We were gathered in groups from our issue area… that was helpful, but we have different perspectives too, so it would have helped to have even 10 minutes alone with the trainer to ask about our specific issues.

We did break out into small groups… we were together with groups working on very different issues, not discussing similar messaging. But for getting the work done, I had to be on my own.

Too much diversity—organization type and skill level

A lot of the times, I couldn’t relate to what other organizations were doing, it was totally irrelevant to my work. [Training organizers] could group people based on the kind of organization or industry so that they could share some real examples when interacting with each other.

It was a little apples and oranges. The training was more targeted toward [organizations that do a lot of campaigns] versus us, a philanthropic infrastructure organization. It could have been more tailored to us. But, I found it easy enough to make those translations.

A mixed group attended our training… development people, people from programs in Mexico, different fields. It was interesting on one hand. Our recommendation was to have follow-up communications training with more homogenous groups.

We had been working with a private consultant so long before the training. Elements were helpful, but it was more one-size-fits-all than was helpful for me. Maybe if we had encountered the training earlier in our path before we had commissioned intensive private training.

It didn’t help me sitting next to somebody who’s never developed a brochure. The spread was huge. Eventually, I met up with a woman from a larger organization [and similar experience level].

Advanced coursework desired

I was eager to participate—but in something more like a graduate seminar instead of an undergraduate intro course.

It definitely would have helped me more if there were a finer grain of courses, discussions… for example, if they had advanced seminars and handled initial information ahead of time.

Training is one of many factors

One training is not that big of a deal. We know this from our work—people tend to think of professional development as “going to something.” It needs to be part of ongoing work. No matter how good it is, it’s just a workshop. It’s how you bring it back… and that is a whole lot harder.

We’ve developed much more into a communications-focused organization as our opportunities changed due to [positive changes in the external environment].

It’s hard to pick out what I learned in training from everything else I’ve learned over the years.

Training was one factor. It’s hard to separate it out.

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