Grow Your Expertise And Not Your Debt | Low Cost (And Low Stress) Professional Development

Two people looking at a book.

Last week, we shared some new ideas on how to approach your career. Today, guest blogger Eleanor Whitney provides some tips and resources on how to put your desire for professional development into action.

“Back to school” season started a few weeks ago, but the students among us are already buckling down to their books as the real work of the semester kicks in and midterm exams loom. Perhaps you feel a little left out of the learning frenzy because you are not a matriculated student.

However, just because you are not pursuing a degree or doesn’t mean you have to forgo learning or sharpening your professional skills. It’s especially helpful to know about lower cost classes if you are contending with student debt and unable to shell out more money for education. You too can learn more without breaking the bank!

Here are a few basic strategies to finding further professional opportunities with an affordable price tag:

Join a professional organization

Any profession you can think of, from fundraisers, teachers, graphic designers, marketers, professors, and photographers, all have professional organizations they can join that offer networking opportunities, local and national events that promote professional development, and websites full of resources. For example, The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network supports emerging nonprofit leaders and has chapters all over the country. AIGA, the professional association for design, offers local chapters, job listings and student groups.

Go to a conference

Not all conferences are expensive affairs held at a fancy hotel. Many regional and local networks offer full or half-day conferences focused around a particular topic or theme that is relevant to your field. For example, when I was a Museum Educator I belonged to the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable(NYCMER), which held monthly workshops and an annual conference. This fall the University of Wisconsin—Parkside is offering a Nonprofit Leadership Conference and every summer the Allied Media Conference is held in the Midwest and tackles issues surrounding independent and nonprofit media production.

Think local

Your local public library, community college, Chamber of Commerce, Business Improvement District, Y, or arts council may offer professional development classes and networking opportunities you never knew existed. I’m always looking to see what the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries have on offer. It’s exciting to see what free resources are out there!


Volunteering is a great way to share skills you already have, apply them to a new field, or try your hand at something new while giving back to the community. A great place to start looking for volunteer opportunities is, of course, Idealist. Other organizations like Catchafire and Taproot connect professionals with nonprofits who need a specific skillset – like design, accounting, marketing, etc – to help complete a project.

Hop online

The Internet has opened up how knowledge can be shared. Here are just a few options of organizations that offer low-cost professional development classes that are driven by social networking and crowd sourcing: is a “community marketplace for classes” that offers practical courses taught by working professionals. You can search classes by location or sign-up for online classes that include an in-person workshop component. You can also offer to lead sections yourself. Recent classes cover topics such as digital strategy workshops, sustainable business development, to building happiness at work. Local classes also give you an opportunity for meeting creative, professional and curious people from a variety of fields.

For those looking for a do-it-yourself approach to professional development, is run by the creative barter organization Trade School celebrates “practical wisdom, mutual respect, and the social nature of exchange” and operates on a barter basis. If you have a skill to offer, and skills you want to learn, you can organize your own Tradeschool and get started!

Pursuing professional development can refresh your perspective, enable you to bring new ideas to your current position, and inspire you to explore a new professional direction.

About The Author


Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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