International relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, has 20 Learning Advocates around the world inspiring local staff to learn, develop and drive the organization forward. Theresa Decker shares the secret to their success.
At Samaritan’s Purse, one of our organizational principles is to “serve with excellence.” We believe that Learning Advocates who are empowered and well-resourced will be the drivers for our organization’s vision, not us. Our job is simply to set them up for success by putting the tools, information, and skills in their hands. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last seven years, and we now have Learning Advocates around the world who can identify and meet their office’s unique needs and knowledge gaps.
Our Learning Advocates program started after our senior leadership team recognized that a lot of information was being lost between international headquarters and the field. They decided that field-based Learning Advocates would help disseminate information, learning content and support resources from the Training Team at headquarters. In the beginning, it was just an online Google group learning community that supported the learning needs in each country. Now this community is hosted on our learning platform. It also helped that some of our early Learning Advocates were senior-level leaderswho showed buy-in from the top.
To make the Learning Advocates program a success it’s important to recruit the right people. At Samaritan’s Purse, the qualities we look for are: a personal passion for learning and professional development (for themselves and others), the willingness to work voluntarily, a gift for teaching or administration, proficient English skills (spoken and written), and the ability to motivate and influence co-workers and work cross-functionally. Our demographic is naturally diverse, so Learning Advocates are recruited locally and made responsible for all workplace learning in their geographic area or country office. This model fits our organizational culture, and it means our Learning Advocates are directly invested in the work they do. Being a local member of the team also helps build rapport and ensure consistency and easy access to resources while mitigating obstacles such as language barriers, geographic distance, time changes, cultural differences, or an insider/outsider mentality.
Appointing and retaining Learning Advocates does have many challenges as it is a voluntary role that can take up to 5-6 hours a month in addition to their other responsibilities. The Learning Advocates’ tasks include creating new accounts for our learning platform, troubleshooting technical issues, compiling training reports for their office’s leadership team, communicating between headquarters and the field, and assessing and advocating for staff development needs in their offices.
Keeping Learning Advocates engaged can also be a challenge given that their primary job responsibilities take priority. However, we try to motivate them by frequently showing them the bottom line – that better equipped field staff means more beneficiaries are helped. We also invest a lot of energy in showing gratitude and acknowledging their contributions publicly. We find ways to connect them with one another both in the forums and offline, which gives them more personal buy-in. Our goal is always to change the norm incrementally by being proactive with communication and capacity-building and showcasing great examples from their peers. However, we recognize that some Learning Advocates will be more engaged than others, and we are okay with that.
Recently we renewed the support we provide to our Learning Advocates with new tools and processes to build their capacity, such as learning plan templates and tutorials on running reports. We alsooffer training and coaching that addresses topics such as using our learning portal effectively, online community management, adult learning principles, blended learning modalities, leadership development, and building influence. We have regular communication and learning content available such as newsletters, an online forum updated through the use of a content calendar, job aids, video tutorials, and webinars. Importantly, we also nurture the one-on-one relationship with our Learning Advocates through individual monthly check-ins via email or Skype.
We noticed a real change after recruiting a designated liaison for our Learning Advocates. Engagement has started growing, with the Learning Advocate Network now consistently ranking as one of our top groups online and attendance at our most recent webinar doubled from the previous year. Learning Advocates are increasingly reaching out to us and some of the ‘bonus’ resources we have created for them – a Learning at Work Week package, a promotional poster in multiple languages, and a template for a professional development plan – have been very popular.
Typically we see the most success in offices where there is an in-country infrastructure that supports the Learning Advocate. For example, our Liberia office has put a professional development team in place, and our Learning Advocate sits on that team. In other countries, success stories can emerge unexpectedly. In Cambodia, our Learning Advocate issued a challenge to all supervisors, and through his initiative, we saw a 1250% increase in course completions in his country! Often times, all the Learning Advocates need are great examples or useful, relevant tools, and they will run with them and achieve great results.
For example, , our National Communications Officer in the Philippines, became a Learning Advocate just a few months after joining Samaritan’s Purse. She told us she believes learning is a continual process, and in order to maximize the potential of the staff we need to provide an avenue for them to continue developing their skills. “It’s a personal privilege for me to lead people to our learning platform,” she said. “The role has challenged me to come up with creative ways to promote the courses and it feels really good when individual staff and teams take advantage of this benefit.” However, even for someone as motivated as Ruth, being the Learning Advocate for her office has its challenges. “Project staff are so busy in the field that they are rarely in the office, but I continue to promote learning through my contact with them and through the newsletter.”
For any organization starting a Learning Advocate program, our advice would be firstly, and most importantly, get buy-in from senior leadership. Most programs such as ours are voluntary or in addition to regular work responsibilities, so staff need to see that the organization takes this role seriously and believes it adds value. Secondly, put a detailed, documented strategy in place before moving forward. A few key components of that strategy include:
- A role description that identifies ideal characteristics, responsibilities, time commitment, and the benefits for Learning Advocates (e.g., incentives, a stipend, or special access to resources or conferences).
- A communications plan (e.g., contact roster, monthly newsletters, webinars, conference calls, training, etc.).
- How you will create space (online or offline) for Learning Advocates to connect, contribute and share resources with one another.
- Recruitment and on-boarding processes and/or job aids.
- A roll-out plan.
Thirdly, once you have your Learning Advocates in place, stay in regular communication with them and openly solicit feedback about their impressions and needs. For example, we are currently piloting an exit survey for departing Learning Advocates that assesses how equipped they felt in their role and whether they believe it added value to their office.
Finally, remember, the effort has to be ongoing at both headquarters and country office level. Learning Advocates can only motivate others if they are motivated themselves, and that means giving them all the tools and support they need to work effectively.
Through all the challenges you might face, keep your eye on the greater goal: an effective Learning Advocates program will fuel mission-driven staff, drive your organization forward and ultimately help fulfil its vision.
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