Saturday, 20 April 2024
Saturday, 20 April 2024

Charity Learning: Transforming learning at Shelter

In 2007, when Katharine Nice started working in the training department at Shelter, Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, the first iPhone had only recently been launched and the ban on smoking indoors was just coming into force. 

“It really was a different world,” she says. “We were quite absorbed by getting courses out to the organisation but not too worried about the development bit. We were very process-focused, and that’s a tough one to get away from. I guess you could say we were order takers.”

“We had very little curiosity about what was going on in the organisation and we were in a bit of a bubble in head office. We were two people in a team of about 15 HR professionals and we didn’t exist as L&D.” 

Today, Katharine is one of an eight-strong L&D team which is part of a wider people directorate. How have they transformed from two people with a book of training courses to being at the heart of delivering real business needs? 

The lightbulb moment

The massive shift in thinking came about almost by chance in 2014. Katharine’s mentor showed her an article on business partnering, which described working in a consultative way to identify business needs and solutions: “It was my ‘ta-da’ moment,” she says. 

Initially, she approached the organisation in Scotland, as they were smaller and hopefully more receptive. She learned about their business needs – not just their learning needs – what they were trying to achieve and where they needed help. The L&D team were then able to involve themselves in management conversations. “We sounded more like business partners rather than just L&D coming up and putting on training courses for them.”

The organisation loved this new approach so much she was able to hire a business partner, and there are now three business partners working in the L&D team. Working in this way, to identify business needs and appropriate solutions, has transformed L&D at Shelter. Katharine highlights some of the results from this new way of working, from putting business and learner needs first. Download a PDF of her story here, or read on:

A new approach

Managers heading the charity’s 11 hubs have different needs to others. They have to wear many hats: budget holder, operations manager, recruiter, line manager, and partner with their local authority. They’re local champions, reinforcing the front line of Shelter’s services, working to protect the rights of those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. The role comes with enormous and varied challenges. As a result, L&D put together an 11-month programme for them, which included face to face training, mentoring, support and action learning sets to continue the work. 

Assessments were all work-based and delegates received ILM accreditation at the end. “By working with the senior leaders and with the hub leaders themselves, we were able to analyse their needs. The result was that we were able to put on a program that wasn’t just ‘put everyone on a course and give them a nice lunch’.” says Katharine.

Charity Learning: Transforming learning at Shelter

Learning pathways

In 2016 the Charity Learning Consortium introduced new features called RoadMap into Moodle’s learning management system. Katharine was one of the first Consortium members to take advantage of this, creating learning pathways for key groups and people in specific teams. Adopting this approach, putting learners’ needs at the centre, the L&D team have transformed Shelter’s eLearning platform into a ‘one-stop shop’. All learning resources can now be accessed easily from the platform, including links to relevant YouTube videos, downloadable PDFs, as well as eLearning and learning pathways. “This has been amazing,” said Katharine. “Our staff can’t get enough of it. In the past, we were guilty of just chucking a few resources online – especially the mandatory stuff – and seeing who accessed it. This new approach has been a revelation.”

Working collaboratively

Turning the eLearning platform into a one-stop shop has also created a space where everyone can pool their resources, avoiding duplication of time and effort. “It’s allowed us to collaborate properly. And I know that sounds really simple, having one shared space everyone can use isn’t maverick at all, it’s really straightforward. But it’s become a forum for key collaborators to use and come together,” she explained. 


Between 2007 and 2014 the L&D team tried to launch an online performance management form twice – and failed. Eventually, they were successful, and the return rate for a new appraisal form soared from 21% to 99% in the space of a year. The team was justifiably proud, but the needs of any organisation constantly evolve. “Suddenly performance in Shelter became about the form and people were using it to hide behind,” said Katharine. “Something had to change.” 

After brainstorming, they decided to rebrand and get rid of most of the paperwork. The new form is deliberately minimal, putting managers in the driving seat. Performance-related pay (PRP) was also roundly disliked. They fed this back to the Board and PRP was scrapped “to the delight of the organisation,” says Katharine. The decision is a real sign of the esteem in which L&D is now held: “We didn’t have a replacement so it was quite a bold thing to do to take away PRP and not replace it with anything. But the organisation trusted us enough to go away and look at a new strategy.”

What next?

It’s a really exciting time for Shelter, with a new strategy to take them through to 2022, to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose, to combat the housing crisis with newfound courage and shared purpose. There’s still a need for courses – both eLearning and face to face – alongside development. But the focus is firmly on putting people first, rather than being absorbed by the training process. 

Katharine also recognises the need for L&D practitioners to continue learning themselves: “We need to think about our own development to become better, and the events that the Charity Learning Consortium organise have really helped us with that,” she says “Ultimately, we just need to have the curiosity, bravery and confidence to probe and ask questions, so we don’t just stick to being training order takers.”

Katherine Nice: Lessons learned

Be curious: More than anything else I’d say be curious, ask questions and keep asking why you are doing what you are doing.

Keep listening: Change happens fast, so keep listening to the needs of your organisation, your staff, your workforce. Listening is a real skill, and what people say may be uncomfortable to hear but it’s a vital part of continuing to transform in L&D.

Collaborate: Learning from one another is vital, and for me, the Charity Learning Consortium is central to that. For example, I got the idea of Ted Talk Tuesdays from a speaker at a Consortium event. Together we can achieve so much more than on our own.

Find your centres of excellence: Where is the great work taking place in your organisation and what can you learn from it?

Take baby steps: Rather than rolling out a big new initiative, with great fanfare, a pilot gives you the chance to test and refine what you’re doing.

Small changes, big difference: When I look back at the changes that have happened in L&D over the last 12 years in Shelter the transformation has been accumulative. It’s lots of little things that have eventually made a big difference.

Fail fast and move on: You’re not going to get everything right straight away, so embrace the ethos of build, test and learn.

Katherine Nice is the Head of Learning and Organisational Development at Shelter

Find out more about eLearning at Shelter in a new whitepaper 10 reasons why charities should use eLearning. The report contains 10 case studies of charities using a digital approach to learning and skills. Download it for free at 


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