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How to Develop a Learning Culture in the Third Sector


How to develop a learning culture in the third sector featured image
Developing a learning culture will help you to improve project delivery and employee satisfaction. Image credit: Kimberly Farmer

Training and development are a crucial part of any organisation. This is particularly challenging for charities, as employees can come from a wide range of backgrounds. As such, it’s critical to develop a learning culture in the third sector.


This means building the virtues of training and development into every aspect of your organisation. Rather than simply sending staff on occasional courses, a learning culture helps you to engrain personal and professional development into all processes.


Naturally, all kinds of culture shifts can be tricky.


With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of concrete steps you can take to develop an effective learning culture within your organisation.


First though, let’s start with the basics.


What is a Learning Culture?

Developing a learning culture means developing structures within your organisation, encouraging staff members to reflect on and share knowledge, as well as self-directing their own professional development.


While this means creating a shift in behaviour among your employees, this is only effective when led by effective policies, processes and day to day management.


Why Do You Need to Develop a Learning Culture?

Developing a learning culture in the third sector has two key benefits:

  1. Ensuring you have the capacity to meet ongoing challenges,

  2. Maintaining staff motivation and engagement.


In more concrete terms, this means that developing a culture of learning within a charitable organisation means giving your staff the skills and knowledge they need to perform their duties, as helping them feel as though they’re valued members of the team.


In an ever changing world, this is vital, both for maintaining effective operations, and reducing costs, by improving staff retention.


How to Develop a Learning Culture

Organisational culture can often feel quite nebulous. That is, it’s hard to pin culture down. This can make it tricky to know the exact steps you should take towards developing a culture of learning.


As we said earlier, the key here is creating organisation structures which facilitate learning.


With that in mind, here are four essential actions you can take to begin developing a learning culture in the third sector.


Create a Learning and Development Policy

The first step is establishing a firm learning and development policy. This is a formal document which outlines your organisation’s specific approach and commitment to learning and development.


This serves three important functions in solidifying and codifying your learning culture. These are:

  1. Helping to build employee buy-in into your learning culture.

  2. Clarifying expectations for both management and employees.

  3. Creating a point of reference for future learning and development work.


With that in mind, your learning and development policy should include the following components:

  • The goals of your policy,

  • The specific benefits of training and development,

  • The role of management,

  • The role of staff,

  • Any relevant timelines or practical details.


Typically, this is most effective if you actually engage your staff in drafting your training and development policy.



Learning culture stock photo
The first step is to create a clear learning and development policy for your organisation. Image credit: Scott Graham

Develop Annual Learning and Development Plans

Next, it’s time to come up with annual learning and development plans for each individual member of staff. There are essentially two components to this:

  1. Deciding on the skills and knowledge your organisation lacks,

  2. Working with staff to build their own personal and professional goals into their development plans.


On the first point, it’s important to think about your long term needs. Don’t just focus on the projects you currently deliver. Instead, keep in mind the kinds of projects you expect to work on over the coming years.


The key here is to upskill your employees for the kinds of challenges they’ll face in the future. Identify a list of key learning needs, and try to assign each of them to relevant members of staff.


You may even wish to take the chance at this point to set deadlines and budgets for each individual area of upskilling.


You’ll also want to have a frank conversation with your employees about their own professional goals at this stage. In order to increase buy-in and maintain motivation, it’s important that employees get the opportunity to receive training which matches these goals.


Evaluating Learning and Development

Once you’ve created your training and development policy and plans, and even begun to put them into practice, you’ll also need a clear process for monitoring their success. That is, you’ll want to track the success of your new learning culture along a few different lines:

  • Value derived from formal training programs,

  • Incidence of informal and peer to peer learning,

  • Employee engagement,

  • Satisfaction with training and development outcomes,

  • Progress of your training and development plans.


Regularly evaluating your learning and development outcomes helps you to overcome a range of challenges. For example, you might find that certain external training providers don’t offer good value for money.


Identifying this early will help you to better focus your efforts.


Evaluation also helps you to ensure that you are directing your learning and development strategy towards the right areas of your organisation. For example, checking in with staff may reveal that there are more pressing training needs that you hadn’t anticipated.



Create a learning culture in the third sector evaluation photo
Engage with your staff to evaluate the success of your training plans. Image credit: Scott Graham

Establish a Learning Budget

It’s also important to be realistic when creating a learning culture in the third sector. The truth is that professional development costs money. Unless you have a clear budget in mind, you’ll often end up wasting time and money on ineffective training.


The key thing here is recognising that, like any other aspect of charity finance, cutting corners on training will often lead to worse return on investment. More expensive options may in turn lead to you creating greater impact in your community.


Learning Culture in the Third Sector

Achieving any kind of behavioural change in the third sector can be difficult. Compared to the private sector, charity staff are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds, and work irregular hours.


As such, it pays to have an experienced charity consultant guide you through the process.


At S3 Solutions, we have extensive experience of helping clients across the island of Ireland to make the most of their existing teams, helping them to drive incredible outcomes in their communities.


Speak to our team to find out more.