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7 Ways to Get Professional Development Funds

After a decade in the training business, I’ve seen a lot of people get funding for professional development and have also seen many people get turned down.

While no two situations are alike, I’ve seen clear patterns emerge that separate the people who get professional development funds from those who do not. There’s no magic bullet when requesting funding, but if you’ll do these seven things, you’ll substantially increase the likelihood of a green light:

1. Take Command of Your Career

The biggest obstacle I’ve seen to people getting their professional development funded is their mindset.

Too many people (a majority of professionals, in my experience) assume that it’s up to their organization to take the lead on their professional development. They wait for months, years, and sometimes for an entire career for more professional development options to land in their laps. When those don’t show up, they may seek other organizations or industries were they often discover the same result.

Even the organizations that provide lots of funding and direction on professional development will expect you to take the lead. People who drive their professional development don’t wait for opportunities to land in their laps. A good organization will partner with you on this, but you need to take command.

Cautionary note: I’m not a fan of the belief, “It never hurts to ask.” Sometimes it does hurt to ask, especially when your request isn’t thought through or it’s timed poorly. For example, requesting funds for an expensive conference the week after your organization went through downsizing is probably foolish. Not only will your request be denied, you’ll brand yourself as tone-deaf or uncaring.

2. Align With Your Funder’s Goals

When most of us begin to think about our professional development, we start by considering what we most want to learn and what we’re excited about. Indeed, we should start with our own goals so we don’t cause unnecessary resentment later.

Savvy professionals will go a step further and also take Dale Carnegie’s advice to:

Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

Whatever you are requesting, there should be alignment with the business goals and strategies of the people who fund your request. A great way to discover how to do this is to ask yourself:

How is success measured for my funder?

For example, if the potential funder of your next training course is your manager and your group is being measured heavily this year on improving customer service results, it’s a foregone conclusion that professional development requests related to customer service will get the most attention.

You can hit two birds with one stone in many professional development activities. For example, if it’s your goal to get better at public speaking but your organization wants you to attend a conference on lean manufacturing, find a way to volunteer to speak at the conference. If that’s not possible, volunteer with the conference to introduce speakers. Ask a few people to give you feedback afterwards.

With a bit of creative strategy, there’s almost always a way for everybody to win.

3. Review Recent Feedback

If your funder’s goals aren’t clear or you’re not sure where to start your professional development strategy, pull out past performance reviews and professional development plans. Look for recent or recurring feedback that is actionable.

There are a least two benefits to this: First, getting professional development on an area that’s come up a few times previously likely indicates that it’s a place where a bit of improvement will be noticed by others and yourself. Second, it demonstrates that you’re listening and responding to feedback you’ve received.

If it’s still not clear what feedback to zero in on, check out this conversation I had with Sheila Heen, author of the book Thanks for the Feedback and also of the bestselling book Difficult Conversations. Her six steps will help your determine what’s most important.

4. Show Industry Evidence

If everyone in your industry is getting leadership training and you’re frustrated because you work for the only person who won’t approve leadership training, you may be missing something.

Of course you’re going to make the case for leadership training if you’re the one making the request. It’s far more credible to cite third party sources that also back up this claim. If your request aligns with industry best practices, suddenly it’s not just you making the case.

We recently did extensive instruction on the Carnegie Coach podcast on exactly what you need to do in order to use evidence to defeat doubt. Start with episode 52 and check out the 5–10 minute audio segments we have through episode 58.

5. Set a Benchmark

When you request funds, it’s appropriate to give the organization some indication of what they can expect in return. Hard numbers are always the easiest to measure and preferred by many funders, but secondary measures are also effective when a hard number isn’t feasible or appropriate.

Here’s a few examples of using hard numbers for return on investment:

  • After attending this social media training, I’ll engage the rest of the marketing department to generate 20% more online leads by the end of the fiscal year.

  • Attending this lean manufacturing conference will allow me to lead our team to a 11% reduction in waste by the end of the third quarter.

  • This customer service training will assist our organization in reducing complaints by 20%, year-over-year.

When hard business numbers aren’t possible or realistic, secondary measures can work too:

  • Once completing training in presentation skills, I’ll volunteer to lead three staff meetings this year.

  • I’ll agree to receive a 360 assessment of my leadership skills, before the training and again six months after the training, to assess my progress.

When professional development is tied to a real goal, you’re more likely to get the funding you need and also to do your due diligence to ensure that you put into practice what you’ve learned. That should be a win for both your organization and you.

6. Get It on Paper

Once you’ve made the case for funding and received initial approval, get it onto your professional development plan for the year, performance review document, strategic plan, or whatever document in your organization gets reviewed regularly to check in on progress.

Do not use this to point at your funder and say, “See, you said you’d fund me!” if someone starts to change their mind. Rather, use this document to have regular conversation about the investment so that minds aren’t changed in the first place.

Placed into writing, expectations for your professional development are less likely to be forgotten about if funding mysteriously vanishes or a transition happens with your funder. Depending on the business environment, you might need to work to keep the initial commitment “sold.” Having it in writing gives you the opportunity to do this as regular intervals.

7. Focus Long-Term

Lots of people can get funding once. The smartest professionals make sure that a real return on the funder’s investment is demonstrated in the long-run, setting themselves up for future opportunities.

Once the professional development activity has ended or reached a logical check-in point, it’s incumbent upon you to ensure that the benchmarks become reality for your organization and you. If you do this, you’ll gain trust in funders to make future investments.

Power tip: Come back to your funder with a formal report or presentation on what you gained from the professional development activity and, after the right timeframe, how you compared against your benchmarks. Funders get busy and often don’t think to ask, so you immediately set yourself apart from others if you make reporting back a priority.

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