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5 Ways Micro-Learning Leads to Your Maximum Results for Your Nonprofit

professional development Dec 18, 2020

By Matt Hugg

Bite-sized learning. Micro-learning. Nano-learning. I won’t debate the differences – for our purpose they all mean the same thing:

A little information can go a long way!

(In my opinion) Micro-learning (what I’ll call it) is exactly what nonprofit staff, boards and volunteers need.

Let’s start with the science. There’s real evidence that humans learn best when learning is broken into small segments, and not the traditional hour lecture format. In “The Secret Of Effective Learning May Be Less Studying, Not More,” Forbes contributor Nick Morrison points to a University of Surrey Business School (UK) study showing that there was as much as a 23% increase in comprehension when material was broken into segments.(1) Several other studies echo the same findings, with more and more saying that bursts of learning in five minutes or less segments is a highly effective means of absorbing material.

The advantages of micro-learning are related to humans’ “cognitive load.” You can think of it like a funnel. The spout of the funnel is all you can take in. If you pour in too much, learning slows and eventually spills out the top of the funnel and gets lost. By “pouring” learning in by small amounts, separated gaps in time, you allow the spout to handle all that’s coming through the wide end of the funnel, and the information gets into your brain.

Okay, that’s nice, but what’s it have to do with nonprofits? It turns out, a lot.

First, when last I checked, staff, boards and volunteers of nonprofits are some of the busiest people anyone knows.

Second, nonprofits don’t have huge budgets to spend on education and training of staff, let alone boards and volunteers – especially in our current economic environment.

Third, even though they’re busy and without resources, most nonprofit work relies on every member of the team being up to date on the latest in their mission discipline, plus a lot more on operating a nonprofit!

So, how does micro-learning help?

Let’s start with time. Got five minutes? Probably. Maybe it’s over a quick salad at your desk, or at the start of your day while you’re waiting for your breakfast burrito in the microwave! Since so many people work from home, think about what you do with that time when you commuted. And when you’re back to commuting – there’s some car or bus time, then. The point is that anyone, even the busiest nonprofit worker, can find five minutes in their day if they want to.

Let me add a hint: do your micro-learning the same time, every day, with the same conditions. Do you sit with a cup of coffee each morning? Great. Check out a short video, too… every day. A habit like that defines “continuing education.”

What about money? Some of the best things in life are free, right? Well, it turns out that a lot of micro-learning is, too. There’s a vast amount of solid, educational video and audio content on the web. You can do a great YouTube search for it, or better yet (yes, my shameless plug) go to Nonprofit.Courses ( for a collection of hundreds of free micro-learning opportunities.

Then there’s your career and the people you serve. There’s this oxymoronic myth that I’ve found in the nonprofit world (and maybe pervasive in the business world, too) that goes something like this:

“We hired you because you were educated for the job. Why do we have to pay for more education?”

I hope you recognize how much of an issue that is. Every nonprofit’s mission and problems are unique, even if they serve similar populations with in similar geographic areas. Back (yes, “back,” because who knows when you’ll be going to the next major, in-person conference?) professional education was seen as a bit of a junket. Sure, you’ll attend the sessions at that conference in Chicago in early December, but what about all that great shopping on the Miracle Mile? (And by-the-way, I witnessed that first-hand.)

That’s not affordable now, and even if it was, do you want to be in that crowd?

Besides, the education you get isn’t just to put on your resume, it’s for how you use it at your organization. Even if you did attend every session in Chicago, and took real good notes, chances are you forgot most of what you heard (remember that funnel?) and when you got back to the office, couldn’t find time to implement it, anyway.

Then there’s timing. Let’s say on your next Zoom check-in, your boss says, “by this time next week I need a major gift solicitation plan to present a next Friday’s virtual board meeting.” Well, you were planning to go to the “Major Gifts for the Small Shop” presentation while you were in Chicago next month. That’s nice, but the board meeting is next week. A bit of a Google search (or, hint, hint: even quicker – go to Nonprofit.Courses!) and you’ll get hundreds of micro-learning videos on major gifts that can kick-off your plan. And better yet, this time you’ll be able to remember what they said – because they’re shorter, and because you can watch any of those videos as many times as you want.

That brings me to maybe the most important reason why micro-learning could be game-changing for you: flexibility. Through micro-learning, you can tailor your learning experience to exactly what you need, right down to the minute. Plus, even better, you can hear from all sorts of voices!

At your Chicago conference you’ll get great information from one, maybe two people in that “Major Gifts for Small Shops” session. With your micro-learning, you can hear from two, or twenty, your choice! That way you can compare approaches to pick the one that’s right for you and your organization.

Plus, if you’re like me, at most about 50% of what I hear at any live conference session is relevant to what I need. That’s not a “ding” against the presenter. It’s just that they’re not in my world. They’re shooting for what most people need, not specifically what I need. In your micro-learning environment, you select exactly what you need – like “five prospect research methods to identify wealth in my database,” not “how to turn a major gift into a planned gift,” which you may never do.

So, there you go. Micro-learning is…

  • Learning effective.
  • Time efficient.
  • Economical

Even better: if you make a habit of it, you can get even more out of it.

Months ago, I would have said, “these days your nonprofit need to be as efficient as you can with your educational time and money investment.” Those are hollow words compare to what we’re going through today. Now is the time for micro-learning – for what you need to learn in the short term, and long term – for exactly where you are – anywhere you’re sheltered in place.



Matt is founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, eLearning resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with hundreds of courses on nearly every aspect of nonprofit work. He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting; Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers; and the marketing chapters in The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management. Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held management and fundraising positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. Matt teaches fundraising, management, and marketing at a number of graduate programs and corporation, online, and in person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. He is also a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

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