Research on the Social Return on Education and Training in the NFP Sector
Learning for Purpose: Researching the Social Return on Education and Training in the Australian Not-for-Profit Sector investigates capacity building through professional development for the Australian Not-for-Profit sector.
The research is led by the Centre for Social Impact at the University of Western Australia Business
School, and is involved in multiple national and international collaborations. A report by Ramon Wenzel, PhD. Centre for Social Impact, the University of Western Australia 2015.
In 2012, the research team began to systematically examine the social return on education and
training for individuals and organisations in the Australian Not-for-Profit sector. This work is funded by
the Origin Foundation and realised in close collaboration with the Australian Scholarships Foundation,
and presented in this report.
Research starting in 2015 will identify the most effective and efficient means by which to develop
Not-for-Profit key competencies on a national scale through formal and informal work learning. This
research is funded through the Australian Research Council and EY, and realised in collaboration with
the Australian Scholarships Foundation, the University of New South Wales and Swinburne University.
Through the Learning for Purpose program all partners seek to inform practice, policy, and theory
about maximising Not-for-Profit organisations’ capability so they can better realise their community
objectives and social change.
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.
About this research
The information reviewed in the previous section highlights important relationships, issues, and
tendencies. Yet, we actually know very little about the state, management, and effects of training and
professional development in the Australian NFP sector. Information is scant and often limited to
qualitative, comparative, and case study approaches. Moreover, the knowledge that does exist about the
great potential of strategic professional development is not given little attention. Evidence might not be
convincing as long it does not directly relate to NFP organisations, specifically, in the Australian context.
Given that NFP organisations are often different from those found in the private and public sectors,
there is a remit for systematic research with respect to workforce development and the effectiveness
of training in the Australian NFP sector.
Further ignorance and failure to better describe and understand these important issues are a concern. Without robust research, managerial decisions, funding allocations, and policy making on human capital development remain hit-and-miss exercises that may be driven by myth, tradition, or particular agendas. Accordingly, there is a need for ground-breaking research that can practically inform leaders, policy makers, scholars, and their conversations.
Based on above review, the theory of change underpinning this research proposes that limited
workforce competence inhibits the ability of Australian NFP organisations to achieve maximum
sustainability and mission success. Engagement with and investments in training and professional
development activities enhance the competence of NFP staff and volunteers so they can better realise
their potential. This in turn improves individual and organisational effectiveness and efficiency, which
have positive downstream effects on social impact.
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COVID-19 made the not-for-profit sector’s value clearer than ever, with demand doubling for many services. But now the sector is under immense strain. Sam Sayers, CEO of the Australian Scholarships Foundation, and Roland Dillon, Partner at McKinsey & Company, discuss the path forward. Read the full article.