Employer-Supported Professional Development: A Personal Perspective

By Odessa Sawyer, MSW
Program Coordinator

A computer displaying a graphic with the words grow, learn, explore as steps for a stick figure.

Financial strain is not an area that is new to the nonprofit sector. Knowing where to put limited funds that will have the greatest impact is a constant juggling act. Being new to the nonprofit sector, I have a fresh perspective on how the for-profit and nonprofit sectors compete for quality employees.

I have found the most striking difference is the investment priorities in the employees. The for-profit sector highly values sending employees to conferences, training and demonstrations of the workload, whereas the nonprofit sector is glad to just have steady pay for the employees. This comparison led me to explore the efficacy of supporting employees’ pursuit of professional development opportunities funded by their employers despite tax status and to consider how I have benefited from the Center for Practical Bioethics’ approach to this issue.

A Recruitment Tool

As a social worker it is extremely important to me and for the integrity of my profession to continuously find professional development opportunities. So much so that it is a part of our code of ethics. Thus, naturally, it was one of my inquiries when searching for a job last year. Most nonprofits stated that they would happily allow me to go but did not have funding to support it.

However, the Center’s answer was much more appealing: “If you submit a presentation that is in alignment with the work you are doing and it is approved, we will sponsor you to go. This is a new area, but it is something we are working into our program budgets.” While job searching, this put the Center’s offer front and center because it showed dedication to my growth while promoting the work of the Center.

During my first two months at the Center, an opportunity arose for me to present at the annual NABSW (National Association of Black Social Workers) conference. My presentation on Advance Care Planning was a team effort to develop, not due to a lack of capacity on my end but a dedication to individual growth by the organization. Ultimately, the presentation was accepted, and I attended this past March.

Mutual Benefits

Beyond the benefits of networking, I found attending a professional conference to be mutually beneficial for the Center and myself. With community educators representing diverse specialties in attendance, I now have new points of access to enhance the Center’s growth in Ethics Services and Ethical AI.

I was able to present the work of the Center to a demographic – African American social workers – that not only was largely unfamiliar with the Center but also knew very little about Advance Care Planning, which is a focus of my work. The audience’s positive reception and interest in my presentation assisted me in feeling more confident to enter any space and discuss both topics.

Beyond business growth, the conference provided for me an even more valuable type of growth – a sense of comradery. Being in a room full of professionals that I could identify with beyond a job title was an invigorating experience. This is of such value to the Center beyond any dollar amount because I came back feeling supported, with new tools to build connections and a more stable sense of who I am and the power I have to promote the work I do within the Center.

A Monumental Need

It can be difficult to prioritize sending staff to conferences that may not result in a direct financial gain for a nonprofit organization, but some financial gains are still present in this choice. Supporting staff to sharpen and update their skills will not only deepen current capacity but also lead to higher retention.

This is not to say that you cannot write policies around professional development that support the organization’s goals, such as how many, the need to present, or even co-sponsorship. But having a route that you can say yes to staff growth is a monumental need in the nonprofit sector to ensure that the sector will not die out due to inability to attract and retain qualified, passionate, skilled employees.

By Odessa Sawyer, MSW

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