Learning for purpose: researching the social return on education and training in the Australian not-for-profit sector

23 Jul 2015

Executive Summary

Training and professional development are key tools for strategically enhancing the leadership and technical competence of any workforce. Research shows that formal learning experiences that are well aligned, designed, delivered, and applied do improve individual and organisational performance. Indeed, the development of human capital is now globally heralded as fundamental to individual, organisational, and societal sustainability and progress. Yet, the continuous and professional development of leaders, managers, directors, employees, and volunteers is repetitively admonished for its absence in the Not-for-Profit (NFP) sector.

Despite the need for an informed conversation, there is a profound absence of systematic information on the state of professional development in Australian NFP organisations: how they develop their people, the consequences of their efforts, and what might be holding them back. This research begins to fill that gap.

The Australian Not-for-Profit sector is extensive and operates across most aspects of our lives and communities. It provides services and support that are diverse and complicated, and in domains that business and public sector organisations are not able or willing to address. With over 600,000 organisations, the NFP sector is the fastest growing part of the Australian economy. Notably, the Australian NFP Sector makes a substantial economic contribution by generating $55 billion toward the nation’s GDP; employs more than 1 million people, who represent about 9% of the overall workforce; and engages over 5 million volunteers, who contribute an additional $15 billion in unpaid work.

Every Australian benefits from NFP services that address social disadvantage, civic awareness, community cohesion, education, employment, emergency relief, cultural heritage, biodiversity, artistic creation, sports, well-being, and thus shape and sustain an attractive and functional society. Meanwhile, challenging times give rise to NFP leaders being pessimistic about their organisations’ ability to match heightened expectations. The Australian NFP sector is under severe strain to meet the many obligations, challenges, and goals for making a sustained social impact. 

And so is its workforce.

Most people working for NFP organisations are dedicated and motivated. They work long hours and are paid less for their efforts when compared with the private and public sector. Even more people volunteer their time and energy. The challenge is not to make them work harder, but smarter. This report draws on robust theory and integrates rich empirical evidence to inform leaders, funders, policy makers, and scholars about workforce development in the Australian NFP sector. It reviews pertinent literature and juxtaposes debates that usually take place within different communities and discipline fields.

The report summarises key findings from field research conducted in Australia from 2012 to 2015. The report is for all those interested in the state of ‘Learning for Purpose’ and how it
affects NFP organisations’ success in realising their mission and community objectives. The potential to rise from good to great hinges on the people and capabilities within the Australian NFP sector. The findings in this report establish support for professional development as necessary to systematically facilitate Australian NFP workers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. And for these, in turn, to significantly contribute to organisational viability and the generation of positive social change.


Key Findings

#1 Training intensity in the Australian NFP sector is highly variable across organisational size, job role and sub-sector.

#2 NFP organisations that systematically develop their people do better.

#3 Training for NFP key competencies works.

#4 Training NFP key competencies leads to multiple positive outcomes.

#5 Training can deliver positive economic returns.

#6 The lack of money and time prevent needed professional development opportunities.

#7 The needs for developing NFP key competencies vary considerably.


Publication Details
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Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage