3 Ways to Improve Professional Skills While Working Remotely

Friday, May 28, 2021

During 2020, nonprofit professionals around the country moved to their home offices. Working remotely came with its own challenges, from communicating with coworkers to building sustainable habits for your organization in the new context.

While many people turned to Netflix to fill their newfound time during the COVID-19 pandemic, others decided this was the perfect opportunity to start developing their own professional skills. Now that we’re getting used to the new normal and vaccines continue to roll out, many organizations are still choosing to maintain the work-from-home approach or shift to a hybrid work model.

Developing your professional skills while working remotely can continue no matter how the external environment changes. All it really requires is dedication and a thirst for knowledge and growth.

That being said, there are some tips and steps that you’ll need to take to get started on your own professional development journey.

Here at The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, we’ve been working with nonprofit professionals to develop their skills for 72 years. From our experience, we’ve discovered three main ways that can develop professional skills and get the most out of the experience, all while working remotely. We recommend the following:

  1. Understand the role professional development plays for you.
  2. Consider the learning resources at your disposal.
  3. Reflect on and apply what you’ve learned.

Let’s break down these concepts even further so that you can get off on the right foot during your personal learning journey.


1. Understand the role professional development plays for you.

Professional development isn’t easy. It doesn’t just come out of boredom from being stuck at home. Rather, you have to really want to learn and improve. Otherwise, it’s close to impossible to actually engage with the educational materials enough to absorb the new information.

Keep in mind that you should want to learn more. Personal and professional development is how you’re able to move forward, continue learning, and help your organization become even better over time. This idea is expressed well in The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance’s professional development guide: “When you aren’t continuously learning, your organization cannot take advantage of the latest information that can help you advance your mission.”

The nonprofit sector is always evolving. With advancing technology, new trends, and the changes that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, there is always something new to learn.

When you invest in professional development opportunities, you’ll see a number of advantages for the organization as a whole. Personal development helps you become a more efficient and effective staff member, leading to other advantages such as:

  • Higher employee retention rates
  • More effective fundraising strategies
  • Higher return on investment
  • Better organizational efficiency
  • Greater social impact

When you keep the advantages to professional development in mind, you’re more likely to maintain motivation throughout the learning process, helping you get the most out of it.


2. Consider the learning resources at your disposal.

As you work from home, you might feel your resources are limited for professional development. It can often feel as though you’re left to your own devices and have to find everything out for yourself rather than having a professional by your side to help guide the process.

However, there are plenty of resources available for nonprofit professionals as you work from home. Actually, there may be more than you realize! The three that we recommend starting with are books, online classes, and other online educational resources.


Books sometimes seem outdated. With the internet at our fingertips, we often turn to Google before an encyclopedia to learn new things. However, books are an incredible resource when you want to cover a topic comprehensively.

A 200 to 500 page book can cover information in a lot more depth than a 1,000 word article can. If you’re looking for something in-depth and comprehensive, you might consider visiting your local library! Below, we’ve listed some favorite nonprofit-specific books that you might consider for your own professional development journey:

  • The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management by David O. Renz
  • Robots Make Bad Fundraisers by Steven Shattuck
  • Nonprofit Management: Nonprofit Principles and Practice by Michael J. Worth

Definitely look for books that are specifically targeted to the nonprofit sector. That way you can directly apply the knowledge you learn to your organization’s situation.

Online Classes

Book learning isn’t for everyone. Even before the pandemic, online learning was a great resource for education of all sorts. Online classes have been studied and revised to become as effective as possible and you’ll find plenty of guidance out there about what makes an online course well-designed.

Well-designed classes are a must to maintain engagement throughout a professional development journey. But first, you should decide the format your course will take. Generally, there are two main types of nonprofit online courses:

  1. Classes designed by the nonprofit themselves. Some nonprofits design courses for their employees and constituents to take advantage of using a learning management system (LMS). These courses help advance knowledge in the community regarding subjects that are immediately applicable to the nonprofit.
  2. Classes designed by outside experts. The majority of nonprofits may not have the funds or experience necessary to design their own classes. Luckily, there are other experts out there who already have! Look for already-designed courses online that cover the subject matter that you find the most intriguing or most helpful for your career.

If your nonprofit offers its own classes, try those first to embark on your professional development journey. Those classes are designed with your organization’s specific needs and context in mind, making it easier to apply your knowledge to your specific position and organization.

If your nonprofit doesn’t offer its own classes, start conducting research on other opportunities. This guide provides examples of online classes designed for the nonprofit sector, spanning topics from communication best practices to program design. Before you look into these types of courses, begin thinking about the subject matter that will most benefit your position at your organization. What type of learning will help you succeed? That will guide your class choice.

Online Educational Resources

As you already know, the internet is vast and full of information. This means that online classes aren’t the only option for learning on the world wide web. There are almost infinite online resources out there for you to supplement your learning and to answer any questions you may have.

Many of these resources are especially useful for continuous supplemental learning opportunities. You can keep up with trends in the sector and continue learning over a long period of time using resources such as:

  • Online journals. Peer reviewed, official journal articles provide trends, statistics, and other actionable information that your organization can use to learn over time.
  • Trusted blogs. Subscribe to blogs from trusted sources. Your nonprofit software providers, consultants, and other sites provide regular industry updates and research information on blog rolls.

The greatest risk to these types of online resources is choosing the right source of information. Be sure that your regularly consumed information is from a source that you trust. If you’ve never heard of a particular journal or blog, conduct some research about them before you start looking at their content on a regular basis.


3. Reflect on and apply what you’ve learned.

Were you ever in a classroom setting where the information you learned seemed to go in one ear and out the other? This is an unfortunate occurrence that can become too real if you don’t take this last step into account. You must reflect on and apply the knowledge you’ve picked up.

Consider, for instance, you’ve taken an online course about effectively communicating with supporters. You’ve learned all about effective segmentation, crafting effective messages, and the value of various platforms.

Don’t let all of that valuable information slip away!

Start reflecting on what you’ve learned, asking questions such as:

  • Why is this information effective?
  • How can nonprofits implement these skills?
  • Why would a nonprofit fail to change based on this information?
  • What is the ideal outcome of better communication?

Reflection is the key to retaining the information you’ve learned. If you don’t reflect on it and consider the information critically, it’s more likely that it will just slip out of your mind and won’t become of any value to you.

The second step here is considering how the information you’ve learned can impact your organization’s strategic plan.

According to Averill Solutions’ strategic planning guide, this plan is where you’ll spell out your organization’s goals for the future. By connecting what you’ve learned and your new skills to these goals, you can help your organization reach those goals faster and more effectively.

By continuously learning and applying that knowledge to your organization, you can make an even bigger splash in your organization’s sector, both helping the organization’s impact and helping your own professional growth.

Improving your professional skills offers a whole host of benefits for both you and the organization you work with. For the organization, you learn how to do things more efficiently and effectively, creating a greater impact in the community. For yourself, you can grow professionally, take on additional responsibilities, and become a better staff member by continuously learning.

By understanding the role professional development plays, determining your learning resources, and reflecting on what you’ve learned, you’ll be able to apply your new skills to make the most out of your learning experience.


Susan Tomlinson Schmidt has dedicated her life to serving others through more than 25 years advancing the missions of social-impact organizations. Currently, Schmidt is the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance president, an organization that develops talent for the nonprofit workforce.

She received her master’s in public administration from the University of Memphis and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional. Schmidt and her husband, David, a professional chef, have two sons, Patrick and Walker. They live in Leawood, Kansas.