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Learn the steps in designing a training session: why you might want to create a training, and help in developing the content and goals of your training.


  • What types of trainings exist?

  • What do you train people to do?

  • Why should you design a training session?

  • Who should design your training session?

Training occurs in many different ways in our organizations every day. It can include learning on almost any subject in almost any way. Our focus in this section will be on training sessions in which people are learning together. We'll deal with trainings of all lengths, from a quick two-hour computer training session to one that takes place over several weeks .

In the next few pages, we'll walk you through all of the early steps in designing a training session. We'll start with a better look at what training is, why you might want to create a training session, and who might be the best group of people to design it. Finally, we'll offer help in developing the content and goals of your training session.

In general, this section will help you design the content of your training session -- a process done in the weeks and months prior to your training session. The next section will take you through the logistics of the delivery of the session itself -- what you do in the two or three days prior to the training , during the training itself, and as follow-up.

A note of caution: Designing a training session is hard work, and if it's done well, it can be extremely rewarding. Before you get started, however, make sure there isn't already a training format in existence that your organization could borrow from or use wholesale. For example, the American Red Cross has mapped out session formats for its training sessions, such as First Aid or becoming an HIV/AIDS educator.  Additionally, if you don't find a format that fits your needs exactly, consider adapting one in a way that will work for you. Our point is that organizing and running a first-class training session is enough work. You don't need to reinvent the wheel.

Because of the broadness of both this section and the next, we encourage you to pick and choose from the ideas we talk about in the coming pages, instead of using every idea as is. That way, you'll be sure to design a training session that is ideal for your organization's needs.

What types of training exist?

As we said above, there are a lot of different types of training methods out there. Some of the most common ways that people learn include:

  • Training courses and workshops;
  • Courses taught by universities and other organizations;
  • Distance learning;
  • Internships;
  • On-the-job training;
  • Orientation sessions;
  • Peer-based methods;
  • Self-directed learning;
  • Tutorials; and
  • Large professional conferences, conventions, and retreats.

What do you train people to do?

As we said above, trainings occur on almost every topic you can think of. But for the needs of nonprofit groups, these trainings can be loosely grouped into two categories : general training sessions and mission-specific training sessions.

First, your organization might want to run (or take part in) a training which covers general topics. These are the topics that will be useful regardless of your organization's mission. These same topics are regularly covered by organizations in the for-profit world. Some topics for which trainings commonly occur are:

  • Communication
  • Computer skills
  • Diversity
  • Ethics
  • Human relations
  • Safety
  • Sexual harassment
  • Self-defense

Additionally, you might also choose to conduct trainings on things that are specific to your organization. Examples of this include:

  • A crisis-counseling center might have trainings on how to counsel specific groups such as children, people that are suicidal, or victims of abuse;
  • The resources to which your group might direct its clients;
  • An HIV/AIDS service center might develop trainings on how to understand and work with different insurance carriers; or
  • A half-way house for recovering addicts might design a training on facilitating support groups.

There are probably almost as many training topics as there are nonprofit organizations. What's important is to recognize what trainings your group wants to develop.

Why should you design a training session?

The bottom line is, most organizations design training sessions when they see a need, be it for information or skills, that is not being filled. Unless you see a need for a new training design, your organization is probably just not going to take the time and effort needed to create and implement a new program.

Now, members of your organizations might see a need for such a training session in many places. First of all, the need might exist within your organization. For example, the director of a group might see a need for a course in personal safety, especially if your organization is based in an area where a lot of violence occurs. Or, a group whose members volunteer to be legal advocates for abused children will need to train and educate newcomers.

Training might also be a need you have noticed in certain groups. For example, an advocacy group for people with physical disabilities might be frustrated with the medical care their clients receive, and offer to conduct training sessions to help health care providers better understand their special needs.

Finally, training might also be a need you have noticed in the larger community. For example, an organization might offer money management skills or literacy courses to people with lower levels of education.

When your organization does decide to design and run a training session, however, members will often notice that doing so has several more advantages. Other reasons to design a session include:

  • To develop an individualized training that will best suit your organization's needs. That is, you might want to design a training session when existing formats just don't cut the mustard in terms of addressing your organization's particular concerns. Designing your own training can help center your session around your own unique goals.
  • To pass on the experience and expertise of members of your organization. After your group has been working on something for a long time, you know the tricks of the trade -- what needs to be done, where you can cut corners, and what looks good in books but never really works. Developing (and sharing!) a training session based on what works helps let other people in on your secret.
  • To give staff members or volunteers experience in training design. This can be a good way to help people improve their confidence in what they know and can do. Involving young people or people who feel they have been "left out" of the system can be particularly rewarding.
  • To offer staff and volunteers additional opportunities for professional growth . Designing and offering trainings to your staff and volunteers is a good way to keep them learning and interested. Not only will members of your organization be better trained and more effective, they'll also be more likely to stay.

Who should design your training session?

Generally speaking, you will want a fair-sized working group to develop your training .While there is probably a limit of how many people should be involved to keep things streamlined and moving full speed ahead, you'll want about six or seven people for a mid-sized training. This number will logically be bigger for more detailed, larger trainings, and smaller for more focused events. In any case, the best mix, if you can get it, is a group that includes:

  • Experts. This includes experts in the topic in which you are training people, and if possible, an expert in training or adult learning as well.
  • Future learners. These are the people who can help keep you grounded, and let you know if your plans are likely to be way over the audience's head, insultingly simple, culturally inappropriate, or not useful for some other reason. It's important, however, to choose future learners very carefully, especially if they are younger or less educated than other members of the training design team. Especially when this is the case, try to choose people who are outgoing and not easily cowed by older or more educated people. You don't want good ideas or suggestions left unheard because the person is too shy or embarrassed to mention them.
  • Future teachers. By involving future teachers, you ensure that they are comfortable with the material they will be teaching. It is also likely that they will have many other helpful suggestions, especially if they already have experience in formal or informal education.

Designing a training session:

Learn about the people you will be training.

The first thing you need to do is to decide who your audience is. This doesn't just mean their names, or the title of the general group you'll be training, although that's a good start. If you know your audience will be a group of teenagers, you will already have a pathway you'll start down that will be different from the path you'd take to teach the same information to, say, a group of middle-aged business people.

However, just knowing the title of the group isn't enough. For example, saying, "This training is geared towards immigrants," helps, but you'll need more information . This is especially true if you or other members of the design team don't know very much about immigrants, or you don't know from what part of the world they are coming .

The bottom line is, the more you know about your audience, the better you'll be able to teach them. If possible, try to at least learn answers to the following questions about your intended audience.

  • Who are you going to train? This means names, if possible, or at least the specific group (young people, people with disabilities, teachers, and so on) with whom you're planning on working. Sometimes you may not know the answer to this, but be equipped with a good guess. For example, you might be planning a class on gardening to which you welcome the entire community, but experience has taught you that when you teach similar classes, you tend to have a group of educated middle-class women.
  • What is their background? This will include education, religion, political beliefs -- in short, anything that tells you a little about who these people are.
  • What pre-training will they need? If there is knowledge (or certification) people need before they come, that should be made very clear when promoting the course. If you plan to train a group of people you know to be responsible (such as the staff and volunteers you work with regularly, or people who have already gone through other trainings with you), you might have the option of giving them reading or assignments before the training starts. However, in general you should be a bit wary of this option. Even the most responsible people can get busy or forgetful.
  • Will some people need more training than others? One of the most challenging aspects of designing a training program occurs when you have an audience with vastly different needs. For example, you might be designing a training to teach people to teach others to read and write, and have in your audience a high school student, a high school teacher, a retired secretary, a priest, and an advertising executive. Each of these people will have different needs. In extreme cases, you might consider having several training sessions. When differences are less pronounced, you might consider sending out some information for participants to read, so that they will all at least have the same minimum baseline of knowledge when they arrive. (That's remembering, of course, our cautionary note from above, that they may or may not read it at all.)
  • How do they see you? This question, in particular, can be very touchy. Especially if the trainer comes from a different background (ethnic or class group, for example), there might be a lot of preconceived notions on both sides of the fence. Members of some groups or populations, for example, might feel that they shouldn't speak up or talk about their ideas. They might even feel that they shouldn't have ideas of their own. They might also feel that what the trainer says doesn't really apply to them or to members of their community. While there's not an easy answer on how to deal with this point, a good start is to be aware of it, and sensitive to it, as you are developing your training.

Determine the needs of your target audience.

Now that you know a little bit about your audience, you need to find out a little bit about what they need. By "need," we actually mean two different things. First, what information or skills do learners need to know? For example, if your group is training college students to be safer-sex peer educators, you might decide that students will need to know some basic facts about birth control, STDs, basic communication skills, and where they can go (or send other young people) to get more information. But how much do your incoming trainers know already? What will need to be part of the curriculum?

Second, what are your audience's logistic needs? That is, what needs to happen for them to walk through the door in the first place? If you are teaching a literacy class, do you need to have a babysitter available? Will people be more likely to show up if they'll get a voucher for free groceries or a movie?

Obviously, the answers to these questions will be very different for different organizations at different times. Many of the questions, however, will remain the same. Below is a starter list of questions that members of your design group will want to have answered before they start designing the training. But remember, this list is just a start. Members might want to brainstorm at the very beginning of their work to decide what else they need to know.

  • How complex is the training that is needed?
  • How much time do learners have to learn the new knowledge and skills?
  • Are your potential learners ready for the training you're thinking about? For example, you wouldn't start a basic literacy class reading Shakespeare. Will the students have the background needed to understand what you want to teach, or will "pre-teaching" be necessary for some or all of them?
  • What are learner's learning preferences and styles? A terrific number of books and articles have been written on adult learning. See Resources for some good examples you might check out.
  • What incentives do people have to come? To pay attention?
  • Can/should people earn CEUs? If so, how will your organization go about setting that up?

Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are a way to offer proof or legitimacy to learning done by professionals outside of a traditional college course. Many careers require that professionals obtain a certain number of CEUs annually, so offering CEUs for taking part in your training session can be a real boon for attendees, and a boost for your attendance.

Your organization can become certified to offer CEUs for all of its trainings, or , more easily, for a single event. The International Association for Continuing Education and Training is responsible for arranging certifications.

A downside to offering CEUs is that doing so isn't free; fairly hefty fees are involved. Because of this, another option your group might consider is to team with an organization that is certified to offer CEUs, such as a university, to offer the units.

Once you know the questions to ask, however, there's still the problem of getting your questions answered. There are many different ways to learn the needs of your target audience. Some of the more common ways of doing so include:

  • Just asking people individually. This option is likely to work best if your training is for a small, known group, such as staff members.
  • Giving a pre-test to learn what people already know. This is a particularly good way to assess people's knowledge of the topic before hand. If you are running an ongoing training, for example, you might give students pre-tests on upcoming topics, and design or modify those sessions accordingly.
  • Developing a needs assessment survey, especially if you want to offer education to the community at large
  • Running focus groups. This is a good start if you will be working with specific parts of the population, e.g., Native Americans or young men.

Consider the scope of your organization's needs and resources.

In an ideal world, your organization might want to teach the entire town how to give basic life support, or you might want to train 500 people a year to be counselors and advocates for children who have been abused. The problem is, the amount of time and resources we have available are rarely ideal. So, your organization will have to take a hard look at what's available, and maybe make some tough choices. Questions your design group should consider include:

  • How much money is available to pay for the training?
  • How much will the training cost?
  • What resources are necessary? (Books, rooms, papers, markers, exercises, videos , facilities, trainers...the list can go on and on.)
  • What resources do you have available?
  • How much time can you allot to this training session? Time spent on designing a training session is time spent away from other tasks you might need to get done. Some organizations that have regular training sessions hire a staff member whose sole job is to design and run trainings. If this is more than your organization can do, you might consider allotting a percentage of one person's or several people's time to take care of the training logistics.

If you find that, as hard as you try, you just don't have the resources you will need, you'll have three options:

  • Scale back the training to something smaller and more manageable.
  • Team with another organization or organizations to run the training.
  • Pass (at least temporarily) on designing and developing a training session.

Teaming up with other organizations is an excellent option for many organizations in this situation.

Develop specific objectives for the training.

Even if the stubject you are covering seems very vague or intuitive, you'll still want to have a concrete way to measure what participants learn. For example, you might be giving a seminar on "Diversity in the Workplace," with an overall goal of making employees more sensitive to cultural issues. That's a broad goal, so your aim should be to come up with a way to measure it specifically. When you are developing your objectives, remember that they should be:

  • Specific -- Objectives should be clear-cut and to the point, without leaving a lot of room for ambiguity.

Good: "Participants should leave today's session with an understanding that much of what we consider everyday language is actually offensive to members of many different ethnic groups."

Not so good: "Participants should think about what they are saying."

  • Measurable -- This can be more difficult, but it can be very helpful to develop objectives that you can measure in some way. This accomplishes two different things: first of all, achieving these objectives help both trainers and trainees leaves the session with a better feeling of accomplishment. Second, it's also a good way to be able to use your training results in future grant applications or on other documents where your organization needs to be able to quantify what you have done.

Good: "By the end of today's session, participants will be able to list ten common terms or phrases and explain why they are offensive to members of different ethnic groups."

Not so good: "Participants will know that a lot of everyday phrases may be offensive to others."

  • Attainable -- World peace won't happen overnight. Try to think in terms of what can realistically be accomplished in the time you have. Particularly if this is the first training session your organization has developed, you might try to obtain some relatively simple objectives. Unrealistic objectives will leave everyone involved frustrated. It's important to set yourself up for success.

Good: "Participants will try to be more thoughtful in their actions and speech towards members of other ethnic groups."

Not so good: "Members of the session who are now active leaders of the KKK will see the error in their ways and join the NAACP."

Develop the content of your training session.

Now that you've decided on your goals and objectives, you need to find a way to achieve them. The pathway to get there will be through the content of your training session, i.e., the materials and other resources you will use. There are three different ways to gather this information:

  • Use materials already in existence.
  • Develop your own training material.
  • Use a hybrid approach. Meaning, you use what's already there when you can and when it fits, and you create your own when you existing materials just won't cut it.

Let's look at these options one by one.

Using material already in existence:

There's a lot of material out there -- books, videos, exercises, and so on. Many organizations are willing to let you use their material free of charge, as long as you give them proper credit and don't profit from their use. (The Community Tool Box is a great example of such a source!) Many other organizations offer their material at a reduced price for officially-designated not-for-profit organizations, and you might be able to obtain donations from other companies or individuals. When doing your research, be sure to check into each organization's policy on use of their materials.

Obviously, this will be more complicated if your organization will in any way profit from the courses you will be teaching. (And by profit, we don't mean charging to cover the costs of the material; that's fair game.) If you are going to charge for your trainings, this becomes much more complicated. We recommend asking legal counsel for their opinion if you have any questions about the legality of the material you want to use.

Develop your own training material:

If members of your design team have the interest and background to do so, developing your own training materials becomes a realistic option. As with any other material that you would want to use, be sure to consider the education and sophistication of your learners when you are developing it. For example, if you are writing a work book, consider the level at which you are writing. The trick is in keeping it simple without offending your audience. Remember, weekly news magazines are usually written at about an eighth grade level. Even with a fairly educated audience, you probably won't want to go too far beyond that. Many word processing programs allow you to check grade level on what you write. And even better way to check your material is to test it out by asking other people or some potential students to look at it and give you feedback.

Beyond making your content readable, try to make it interesting. Pictures, stories, videos, games, and puzzles can teach the same information as a page of text in black and white. However, they're also often a lot more interesting, which means your learners will probably remember a lot more than they would otherwise. Different methods to train people that you might use as part of your training session include:

  • Lectures
  • Role play
  • Slides
  • Flip chart
  • Panel discussions
  • Brainstorming
  • Case studies
  • Dramatization
  • Games
  • Stories and fables
  • Videos

A couple of other practical tips for developing your content include:

  • Generally speaking, keep it practical. You may wish to involve some theory in your materials, but use too much and you risk losing your audience.
  • Use breaks and energizers if the session lasts for more than about 90 minutes.
  • Highlight the important points. You may choose to have your trainees walk away from the training with volumes of information, and that's fine. But without guidance, even the most avid learner will get lost. Consider prefaces such as, "If you are going to read just one chapter in this book, it should be . . ." Or, even better, develop a one page summary keying in on the important points from the day's session that learners can refer to again and again.

Decide on a format for your training.

Now that you have your goals and content, it's time to put the pieces together in a schedule. What will happen first, second, third, and so on. How much time will you spend on each individual activity? If none of the members of your training group have ever done a given activity, try to find someone from outside the group who has, who can give you a realistic view of how long it will take to cover the material. Give your training presentation a trial run. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it certainly improves!

There are also a couple of other points you will need to consider. First, be sure to schedule plenty of time for questions. Also, you might have a "filler" activity available that can be easily added into the schedule at any time, in case a given activity won't work at the last minute, such as the VCR dies or a speaker isn't available. Things like this happen all the time. Be prepared!

Finally, decide if you want to send a copy of the schedule to participants ahead of time, so they will know what to expect when they arrive. Sometimes you might want to use an element of surprise in your training to make it more vivid or exciting. Perhpas you're worried that a very long training schedule will overwhelm participants with nothing there to walk them through it. Generally speaking, sending a copy out is a thoughtful, helpful thing to do.

Decide who should run the training and what training they will need.

Trainings are run by either staff or volunteers from the organization, or by someone from outside of the group. The outsider is usually an expert, either in the field they in which they will be training or in facilitation in general.

Should the training be done by someone involved with the organization? Maybe so. The design group should discuss:

  • Do you have someone on staff (or a volunteer) who is an expert in this field?
  • Is he willing to organize this training session?
  • Will this training take him away from his normal tasks to an extent that is not acceptable, for whatever reason?
  • How much money does your organization have budgeted for trainings?
  • If you spend the money on outside assistance, where will you get the money? Will something else suffer because of it? Is that acceptable?
  • If this is going to be a "regular" training, would an outside consultant be willing to teach a member of the organization to do it? (E.g., train the trainer.)

Other individual factors will work into the equation as well. It's up to the group to weigh the pros and cons and decide what's best for the organization.

Regardless of who the group chooses to run the training, there's no replacement for experience. Experience can mean many different things. For example, if it's a training you know your organization will be giving again and again, you might choose a facilitator who you know will be able to do the training on a repeated basis. Also, another good idea might be to have someone who has already gone through the training assist in the facilitation. Not only do they understand what the training is all about, they also know first-hand how it feels to be a trainee.

Ask people not involved in the development of the training to critique it.

We all get proud of thehard work we have done. Unfortunately, sometimes the closer we get to a project, the less we really see it. That's why it's important to have a fresh set of eyes look at your work. Try to get the same types of people who developed the training to critique it, but, as often as possible, use people who don't have anything directly invested in it. For example, you might ask the director of another nonprofit group to take a look at it, or someone at the local college who specializes in the development of educational materials. And whoever you ask, make sure you stress that you want an honest critique -- that you're not just asking for kudos.

Recruit participants.

If your training is going to be in house (just for staff and/ or volunteers), this step is pretty easy. Just send a memo, tell people in the hallway, or write it up in your newsletter. On the other hand, if you want to do a larger training -- for the community at large, or for members of a specific community -- then you will have to consider the issue of recruitment as well.

Develop a way to assess your training.

While you're in the planning stages is the right time to start thinking about how you will evaluate the session and how it went. Some simple ways to do so include:

  • Participant evaluations, to be filled out at the end of the training.
  • Pre- and post- tests of key points can be given to see how much participants have learned. This is also useful for future trainings, because the pre-tests will let you know what your audience knows coming in, and so you'll be able to better understand what to focus on in future work.
  • The development of a group project at the end of a training session is a good way to see if participants can put what they learned to practical use.

Celebrate your hard work!

When you've gotten this far, you're already half way through a difficult task. Give yourself a pat on the back, take a deep breath, and get ready to plunge into the development side of training sessions.

In Summary:

Designing a training session is a lot of hard work for everyone involved. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding things your organization does, because you get to see immediately the changes you have made and what people have learned. Oftentimes, too, that training will have a domino effect and eventually reach people you hadn't even thought of. Designing an outstanding training and using all of the wisdom and skils your group has earned is time well spent.

Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

Energize, Inc. - leaders of volunteers with tools and wisdom to ensure every ounce of volunteer effort makes a difference. Find books, articles, free resources, and an innovative online training plan.

The Free Management Library - an outstanding resource with information on a wide variety of topics for nonprofit professionals .

The Points of Light Foundation offers a wide variety of training opportunities for nonprofit groups across the nation.

10-Step Process for Developing Training Courses is an example of how to develop training course in thorough steps which can also be altered to fit your training session.

Learningwire - a bi-weekly newsletter for people in the training and personal development industry.


Print Resources

Brookfield, D. (1991). Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gaines R., & Robinson, J. (1989). Training for impact: How to link training to business needs and measure the results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass .

Knowles, M. (1998). The adult learner: A neglected species. Gulf Publishing Company.

Powers, B. (1989). Instructor Excellence: Mastering the delivery of training . San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Quinlivan, D., & Renner, P. (1994). In search of solutions: 60 ways to guide your problem-solving group. San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Company.

Silberman, M., & Lawson, K. (1995). 101 ways to make training interactive. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vineyard, S. (1990). The great trainer's guide: How to train (almost) anyone to do (almost) anything. Downers Grove, IL: Heritage Arts Publishing.