Creating a Professional Development Fund (and Why You Need One)

Most of us want to continue to learn new things and develop our skills long after we’ve finished our degrees and started our careers. Fortunately, most employers appreciate it when employees keep their skills sharp and bring new ideas and talents to the workplace. However, unlike corporate settings–-where employers typically pay for ongoing training and dues for professional associations-–nonprofit employers often do not have the budget for professional development costs.

If your employer is not able to pay for a professional development opportunity, but you know you need additional training and resources to do your job well and stay motivated, what can you do?

Although it's not easy to put into practice on a nonprofit salary, setting aside a percentage of your salary for professional development at the beginning of each calendar year is the easiest approach. Put the money into a separate account if you need to, or leave it in a general savings account, but either way, earmark the money for professional development.

Earmarking is important. Unless you put your money into a dedicated fund for professional development, it will be easy to spend it, leaving you unable to take advantage of professional development opportunities when they come up. With a dedicated fund, you’ll always know how much money you have to spend on professional development, and you can choose which opportunities to invest in accordingly. Additionally, if you don’t spend all of your dedicated funds every year, you’ll also see your fund grow over time. As your fund gets larger, you can take advantage of the more expensive opportunities such as conferences.

How much should you set aside each year? You’ll need to determine the right amount based on your professional interests, where you live, where you are in your career, and how much of your income you can comfortably set aside. As a general rule of thumb, try setting aside 5-10% of your income annually. If you live in the U.S., saving $500 - 1000/year for professional development would be a good place to start. This amount should be enough to cover things like reference books, online courses, or attendance at a local, conference. For conferences and training courses, particularly those involving travel, $1000 will not go far. If you want to attend an out-town-conference or training event, you’ll need to plan (a year ahead, if possible) and increase your professional development budget accordingly.

The advantage of funding your professional development expenses yourself versus relying on your employer is that you can always count on some level of professional development each year. Paying for your professional development also means that you are in control of what you decide to do or purchase, which avoids the need to seek your employer's approval for your continuing education choices.