10 Free Courses Your Nonprofit Needs (& What You Can Learn)

Today’s nonprofits are in a bind. New health protocols increase the cost of delivering much-needed services. The economic slowdown leads to decreased donations, and if your nonprofit relied on events or sales to generate revenue, things are even worse.

Even in good times, justifying the expense of going to a conference wasn’t easy. Now, even if the conference is online, you’re spending money that could go toward your already-stretched mission budget.

Still, to meet client’s needs, educate inexperienced staff and volunteers, and retain seasoned experts, you can’t ignore their need for learning. Thankfully, there are a plethora of free and low-cost resources available online to satisfy a nonprofit’s professional development needs.

That being said, here are 10 free courses your nonprofit needs, now! 

1. Leadership

Anytime a group of humans forms an organization, someone emerges as a leader. It could be a formal appointment or an informal assumption, but someone will stand out to guide the direction of the group. 

As organizations are communities with boards, volunteers, staff, leadership, and by extension, management, is a nuanced art that is highly dependent on one’s role in the nonprofit. 

For example, leadership as a board member is very different from leadership as the head of the staff. Board members are commonly charged with setting the strategic direction of the organization, while the staff is responsible for the tactics to carry out that direction (often by using additional volunteers). 

Our Suggested Course: The Many Facets of Nonprofit Leadership

2. Revenue

All nonprofits need money. After all, no money, no mission, right? 

One of the major differences between businesses and nonprofits is how they generate revenue. Nonprofits have a lot more options. But what are they? 

There’s a lot out there that few people consider, yet can make a major impact on a nonprofit’s ability to serve their constituents. Fundraising and grant-writing are common revenue streams, but there are many other funding sources you might want to consider.

Our Suggested Course: More than Parties and Grants: 10 Revenue Sources for Nonprofits

3. Fundraising

Perhaps the only reason public speaking is listed ahead of death on surveys of what scares people the most is that the majority of those people never had to ask for money.

The good news? There’s a way to fundraise for just about every personality. If you’re the chatty, extrovert type, you might be comfortable to step right up and say, “please give.” If you’re more reticent, you can write a letter or post a campaign to your social media. 

But know that there’s more. In fundraising, the actual solicitation is only one of the activities in what’s usually a multi-stage process.

Our Suggested Course: Nine Guiding Principles for Successful Fundraising

4. Grants

For a lot of people, grants and nonprofits go hand-in-hand. It makes sense. There are a lot of foundations and government agencies whose mission is to help people. However, many of these groups find it easier or less expensive, or are otherwise restricted from actually performing the services themselves. That’s why they turn to nonprofits—and supply them with necessary funding through generous grants!

Our Suggested Course: The Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal

5. Accounting

All accounting isn’t the same. To start, nonprofits use specific techniques that are not applied to the business sector. But maybe more important, nonprofit accounting is about transparency. 

If peace were declared around the world and a nonprofit spending scandal was uncovered the same day, the scandal would make the news headline first. Why? Because misspending donated or grant funding is a break of community trust, and the public cares about the trust they put into nonprofits.

Our Suggested Course: Nonprofit Accounting: Nonprofit Financial Management

6. Startup

Nearly every nonprofit starts with an emotional event or issue. But what happens when you start to organize? What happens when you get your first donation, and your donor wants to know how their money was spent? Emotion can only take you so far. 

Of course, starting a nonprofit is about incorporating and applying for your nonprofit status. But it’s also a lot more. 

Our Suggested Course: Know Your Why: Looking Beyond Your Passion to Start Off Right

7. Small Nonprofits

All nonprofits start small. Most stay that way. Maybe they serve a small population or a specific neighborhood. The nonprofit might address a rare disease, or offer a very targeted service. Or, perhaps whoever runs the nonprofit just doesn’t want it to grow.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these scenarios. It’s just that anyone running or volunteering for a small nonprofit needs to realize that these organizations have their own special needs. Anyone involved probably plays many roles that in a bigger nonprofit would be handled by different people. 

A small nonprofit will likely only qualify for targeted grants from funders who address their targeted issue, and/or share their specific geography. Even their accounting is different!

Our Suggested Course: Small Nonprofits: Thrive Like Big Shops

8. Volunteers

The ability to employ volunteers – people who will serve a cause without financial compensation – is one of the great nonprofit superpowers. But like all superpowers, it can be used for good or evil. We can easily name the good: helping one’s community, building friendships and networks, supporting a cause you love. The evil? Let’s just say that there’s a good reason for nonprofits to employ background checks and put child protection training in place. 

Yes, volunteers need training on their specific role in the organization (like how to be the best greeter at a hospital), the history and mission of the nonprofit (learning the heroic story of what triggered the nonprofit’s founding), and overall cultural and legal norms (such as child protection training if they’re working with children).  

That’s all necessary, and more. But what’s often overlooked is that nonprofit staff, volunteers, and boards need training on how to work with volunteers. Can they fire a volunteer? Are volunteers held to the same work standards as paid staff? How do you recruit volunteers and how can you motivate them without their getting a paycheck?

Our Suggested Course: Nonprofit Volunteers: You Can’t Live With ‘Em, You Can’t Live Without ‘Em.

9. Marketing

There’s a great pressure on nonprofits to spend money on their mission, so much so that the ratio of mission spending to overall budget is a public benchmark of a nonprofit’s effectiveness. It also puts marketing in the deadly “overhead” category, (along with accounting and revenue generation, by the way) implying that it’s not core to the organization’s existence. 

In business, this would be heresy. To sell their product and generate revenue, businesses must have marketing. It’s essential. 

But it gets even more complicated with nonprofit organizations. Unlike a business where the person who buys the product is usually the one who uses it, in nonprofits, the person who benefits from the service is not typically the one who pays for it. 

There’s usually a donor or additional income stream to whom marketing should be directed, too. 

So, you don’t just need to know the techniques of marketing, you need to know why and to whom you’re marketing, too. 

Our Suggested Course: Inclusive Branding

10. Insurance

By their nature, most nonprofits’ missions involve a high degree of risk. Youth organizations risk child abuse. If you care for older people, you risk elder abuse. Healthcare and social service organizations risk malpractice. If you run a food pantry, you might give out expired food. If you care for a nature center, a visitor could get injured by falling on a trail. 

Operating with volunteers that are not trained properly puts you at risk, as does substandard facilities because you couldn’t raise the funds to keep them up. If you have paid staff, you have all of the liability of any employer. 

And it’s not just the organization that is at risk. Volunteers and board members put themselves at risk by helping through their assigned roles. Luckily, insurance can help to mitigate some of that risk and protect you if something does happen.

Our Suggested Course: Nonprofits – You Didn’t Know You Needed This Insurance!

Tough times for nonprofits doesn’t mean the end of learning. In fact, tough times are exactly when learning, and the new ideas you get from it, are needed the most. 

The good news is that you can learn a lot, and never break (or even touch) your mission-dedicated budget with free online courses like these.

This guest post was contributed by Matt Hugg of Nonprofit.Courses.

Matt is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in every aspect of nonprofit work.