Beeta Ansari

Beeta is Ashoka U’s Exchange Director, the world’s largest global convening for social entrepreneurship education.

4 Ways to Get the Worldchanging Training You Need, But Never Got

Jessica Lax worked with the founding Ashoka U team in 2008 and is currently starting up School For Change – a new online school for changemakers. In this post she challenges organizations to take an entrepreneurial approach to training new recruits, and ongoing professional development in the citizen sector.


“I feel like I’m learning to fly while the plane is already in the air. There’s no time to stop and seek out an intensive training program. I need to figure it out, fast, and nail it the first time.”

“I didn’t start working in this space because I love marketing, or have management down to a science. I witnessed injustice, I was called to act. I do this work not because I have all the right skills, but because I can’t do any other.”

“I’m a generalist. I wear a different hat every day. And for better or worse this sector is full of other people just like me. Because we rarely have money to hire professionals to do the job, we hire the smartest people we can find, hope their passion keeps them fired up, and expect them to learn from scratch as we throw new projects at them everyday.”

These stories aren’t unique. In my conversations with hundreds of changemakers, I have heard similar stories again and again, and I have lived them myself. Undoubtedly, it can be exciting to continually rise to new challenges. But it can also be frustrating when you miss opportunities because you don’t know what you’re doing. You can feel overwhelmed when you need to learn more than you ever possibly can. And most importantly for the sector, this learning on the fly approach leads to lost potential that holds the sector back.

Most citizen sector leaders will agree that training is important, but for most organizations, the challenge of keeping your doors open trumps long-term investments every time. Intensive onboarding trainings like what’s offered by investment banks or Facebook’s seven week bootcamp for new recruits, are extremely rare. And ongoing professional development? I’ve yet to see it be more than a line item that gets cut by second quarter.

But just like in so many other areas, our resource constraints can be an opportunity to spark new ways to train teams and support their learning.

So how we can build the learning experiences changemakers need to feel professional, and confident as they face increasingly complex challenges?

What tools can organizations use to create environments that support ongoing learning that aren’t entirely dependent on external funders?

Here are four low cost ideas that can be put in place by an intern, or a manager, with or without cross organization support. They are just a start, but each of them can help build the learning culture an organization needs to maximize it’s most valuable asset – its people.

1) Foster an Entrepreneurial Approach to Professional Development

Traditional education creates expectations that someone else needs to hand us our learning experiences. But if we approach our learning needs in an entrepreneurial way we can start to see the rich opportunities that exist in the relationships, projects, and resources at our fingertips.

With a small investment of time we can build in the structure, accountability, and evaluation we need to create the ideal training program for ourselves. Interviewing more experienced peers, taking on specific projects, and completing online courses or reading lists that work towards a defined learning goal can do wonders for building confidence and competency.

Whether your organization forms an Open Masters style group of learners who help each other stay motivated to complete their learning plans, or individuals design a learning plan with the help of a colleague whenever they take on a role that’s too big for them, this can be a powerful approach that empowers everyone to take responsibility for their own learning.

2) Deploy Rapid Group Learning

An entrepreneurial approach to learning can also be used when a team faces a skill gap together – usually when an organization is expanding into a new area.

An entrepreneurial approach to learning can also be used when a team faces a skill gap together – usually when an organization is expanding into a new area.

There are a lot of different methods for this, but here is one way that rapid group learning can work:

  • Block out a set time period where everyone in the group can focus exclusively on the process.
  • Map out knowledge & skill gaps the group needs to fulfill.
  • Brainstorm potential learning relationships and resources.
  • Prioritize and then divide up learning activities (reading certain books, talking to certain people, completing certain user tests, taking certain courses, etc.).
  • Iterate quickly, meeting back the next day, or in the next few hours, to teach back to the group what you’ve learned.
  • Reassess, cross knowledge gaps off the list, and repeat if necessary.

The approach sounds simple and intuitive, but you’d be amazed how often providing this kind of structure is overlooked, and yet how this kind of learning can give a team the confidence they need to execute on a daunting new project.

3) Everyone a Teacher

Even today, 5 years after working with the Ashoka U team, I still make use of some of the tactics I learned in a productivity workshop offered by fellow team member, Erin Krampetz. In our small team of five, those of us who had something to teach, on a topic others were interested in, offered it up during a team retreat. Simple, free, powerful.

On a much larger scale, Google does this with their Googler 2 Googler program. Google could afford to bring in the best trainers, but yet there is something in the relationships that are created, and the network of expertise that is formalized that makes this approach incredibly valuable.

Whether an intern sets this up amongst a larger group of peers, or a manager launches a skillshare program – the level of interest and the results will likely surprise you.

4) Host Failure Wakes

One of the most important ways to cultivate a learning culture within an organization is to celebrate failure. Creating an environment where people are encouraged to make mistakes, and then learn from them, is a crucial ingredient to being an innovative, and adaptive organization.

A Failure Wake is an event where people get up to openly share the big mistakes they’ve made, and what they’ve learned from them. As an organization they can be hosted as staff retreats, or small team reflections. Regardless of format, they give everyone the opportunity to celebrate how mistakes, and the learning that comes with them, are bringing everyone closer to future success.

Have other ideas on how you can build a learning culture in your organization? Share them in the comments below.

For more ideas on DIY Professional Development check out School For Change, and sign up here to get updates on a growing list of online courses for changemakers.