In 2012, Spirit of America, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian and economic assistance around the world, faced a particularly complex challenge in Mauritania, West Africa. Many believed the country was on the brink of falling under Al Qaeda control. Its government was unstable, its economy was failing, and its people were hungry due to widespread losses in livestock. The organization was working with local communities to help reduce rising civil tensions, and to stabilize the economy by ending the food insecurity and economic devastation stemming from livestock disease. But it needed information on how to keep the livestock alive and to develop a communication plan for rural farmers—not the kind of knowledge you can find easily in a book. It needed access to expertise in a variety of technical areas—from bovine health to mobile technology.

In situations like this, the need for access to expertise and professional learning across the social sector comes into sharp relief. To help fill this gap, last year our organization, Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG)—a membership of more than 400,000 business professionals and experts—launched the GLG Social Impact Fellowship, which gives select social sector leaders ongoing access to our platform. Over the last 12 months, we helped our first class of fellows tackle a host of challenges around the world in areas such as community health, extreme poverty, and US disaster response. We were also privileged to help Spirit of America. In the process, we learned a lot about social sector organizations, which often have the freedom to explore unorthodox approaches but have limited resources for trial and error. They typically face learning challenges that demand creative solutions, including:

1. Nonprofits need alternatives for professional development.

Most traditional companies offer employees some form of professional development programming. Employers often work with staff to set goals that help them advance within the organization. The career ladder—although occasionally restrictive—tends to incentivize learning.

But social sector organizations rely less on these ladders than businesses or government institutions; they gain flexibility at the cost of professional development infrastructure. Conferences can be a helpful alternative and often constitute social sector leaders’ primary exposure to new ideas, skills, and mentors.

Many leaders also take advantage of professional transitions to learn. In a McKinsey survey, 70 percent of social sector leaders reported that they learned their leadership skills outside formal training; 67 percent identified “exposure to challenges and career transitions as development opportunities.” We’ve tried to maximize and structure such opportunities. For instance, when one GLG fellow, Manmeet Kaur, installed the first chief operating officer at her nonprofit City Health Works, GLG put the new COO in touch with COOs from other service organizations around New York City. Together, they worked to define the COO role and identify best practices that Kaur could implement at City Health Works. She continues to use this peer group as a resource for brainstorming and advice.

2. Social innovators can’t depend on traditional learning methods.

Social innovators are pioneers by nature. This makes learning particularly challenging, because they often don’t know what they need to learn to succeed. Our fellows don’t have predecessors modeling best practices; they have to embrace iteration and remain open to applying outside knowledge.

The big question for social entrepreneur Aaron Fishman, a GLG fellow who leads East Bali Cashews—a social enterprise that harvests, processes, packages, and sells the cashews grown by local farmers in Bali and then invests the proceeds back into the local community—was how to get into U.S. markets. For a long time, he didn’t know where to start. Through GLG, he connected to an attorney specializing in FDA regulations, a former Diamond Foods executive, and a former leader at Amazon. Conversations with these leaders helped him forge a new path—packs of East Bali Cashews will be available to American consumers on Amazon next month.

In the last decade or so, the social sector has taken a page from the Silicon Valley playbook to forge a rich ecosystem of social impact accelerators. Research from Emory University’s Impact of Entrepreneurship Database Program indicates that there are at least 650 such programs already, with new ones emerging frequently

3. Social sector leaders need their own learning community.

Our fellows want to learn from each other. Despite disparate missions, many have faced similar challenges and are eager to collaborate. For instance, when Nuru International, an organization that fosters sustainable development across Africa, opened new offices, its team turned to St. Bernard Project CEO Zack Rosenburg, who manages a similarly diffuse team working on disaster relief. Rosenburg offered counsel on building a consistent culture across a team that works thousands of miles apart.

Many nonprofits and social enterprises find this learning community in co-working spaces—sharing resources and exchanging ideas to advance their missions in offices, hubs, labs, and incubators around the world. 

The good news about professional learning is that the smartest people in their fields want to teach what they know. And they especially want to teach smart people who are engaged in the field and helping others. Many of the experts who are members of our platform say that teaching helps them stay sharp and learn about important new ideas in their areas of expertise. Asked about their interactions with our fellows, 94 percent of our experts said they wanted to keep doing this kind of work, and 83 percent were willing to discount or waive their fees. This proves that the desire for sharing expertise is abundant; social sector leaders simply need to find forums that enable it.

4. Nonprofits need to prioritize learning, despite limited resources.

Learning requires that organizations invest money and time, which can be especially burdensome to nonprofits. In a Bridgespan Group survey highlighted in the SSIR article “The Challenge of Organizational Learning,” 98 percent of nonprofits reported collecting information about how to drive organizational learning, but a third reported that “they were unable to reflect on it in and integrate it in a meaningful way.”

Chief executives are the critical piece of this puzzle. They need to be both operators and visionaries, often leaving little dedicated time for learning. But they can still send the strong message to their teams: learning is a mission-critical endeavor. One of our fellows, Ben Powell, wanted to focus extensively on hiring for the long term at Agora Partnerships, but his team faced continuous strategic, operational, and technical decisions. After encouraging them to prioritize learning, the team began to find solutions to challenges around perishable inventory management, online services pricing strategy, creating hybrid corporate structures, and other complex matters.

Savvy nonprofits and social enterprises can also prioritize learning as they build their boards. Boards are often created with fundraising in mind. It’s no doubt a vital need, but boards can also play a powerful role in offering expertise and mentorship to chief executives and other organizational leaders. Accomplished professionals often relish the chance to shape the future of their fields and want to invest their ideas, not just their dollars, in organizations.

When social innovators engage expertise and operationalize insight, they can find transformational solutions. In the case of the Mauritanian livestock, and in examples closer to home, these four principles of learning can help guide nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs to greater mission success.