Professional development is an investment in your future. Here’s how to assess the ROI.

Do you know that old cliché from the movies, where a writer has so much trouble composing something that she is surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper – ripped with great energy from the typewriter? (that was back when we used typewriters, of course)

I was that kind of writer with this post. For a while now, I’ve been wanting to share a helpful way for volunteer managers to make decisions about professional development trainings.

As volunteer managers in the nonprofit world, where we hear all the time that funds are scarce, we become masters of finding the free, low-cost, or pro bono options to build our skills. And that works out pretty well – much of the time.

But sometimes, our search for the low-to-no-cost alternatives does not serve us. Sometimes, we opt for those trainings even though they don’t fully meet our needs.

Or sometimes, if we totaled the dollar value of the time we spend searching for “affordable” options, we would have been better off choosing the more higher priced service.

It gets confusing. When it comes to professional development, when is “free” the better choice, and when is it worth putting money on the table?

It took me many, many crumpled-up drafts to consider that question and come up with a helpful position, but I’m finally there, so here goes:

Whenever you consider taking a training – be it a workshop, course, conference, or coaching – the big barrier to signing up is not the price.  It’s not a question of whether it’s free or costs more than your entire program budget.


The real question is: what will you get from your investment?

Let’s think about the word investment, what it does and doesn’t mean.

Here’s what it doesn’t mean:

Investing is not a negative. It doesn’t mean that you are taking money away – it’s not that you now have less money to spend on something else.

Investing means that you are committing your resources to something that will bring you more:

  • More money
  • More time
  • More skills
  • More all-around job satisfaction

In our world, investments might yield these kinds of results:

  • More website visits, more email opens, more volunteer inquiries – and ultimately more qualified volunteers –  because you took a course in nonprofit marketing.
  • More volunteers or volunteers who stick around longer, because you got trained in how to screen and interview for the best fit.
  • More available time, because you joined a leadership circle and learned how to advocate for additional staff.
  • More confidence and less stress, because you got coaching and learned how to communicate more persuasively with co-workers.

When you think of your investment over the long term, the numbers soar even higher, and that initial outlay of cash is negligible when you consider the returns.

Over a period of years, say, you might see your volunteers staying on for twice as long, or your inquiry rate triple, or your leadership skills grow to the point where you take a promotion or get offered a better job.

That’s why we go to college, right – or continue on for an advanced degree or a certification? There is a presumption that our educational investment, which is large, will translate into a higher salary and a more rewarding career down the road.

The thought process is no different when we weigh the pros and cons of a free webinar or a $100 one.  Is the free version going to give you as much long-term usable, practical, and relevant content? More than likely, the paid version delivers more value. It may come with tools, templates, more opportunities to ask questions, or the promise of a recording that you may refer back to whenever needed.

But if the free version really offers a long-term payoff, it may be the better choice.

The next time you that you come across a training that looks useful, don’t rule it out because of cost.

Instead, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the problem that I’m hoping this training will solve?
  2. What skills and tools have I already tried to fix the problem?
  3. If any of those fixes involved free resources, how much did they help?
  4. How much time have I already spent trying to resolve the problem with free or low-cost resources?
  5. What else am I losing right now because the problem is unresolved?
  6. What would my life look like if I solved this problem?
  7. Is this training likely to help solve my problem?

We’re talking about value here, and not just the value of the trainings that you choose. Ultimately, this process is about claiming your own value — the value of your skills, right now and in the future — and the value of your time. Treat yourself as the professional you are, and don’t settle for less than you need.


Have you found a professional development investment and need to ask your boss for funding? My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your influencing skills in any situation. Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa