Successful Staff Training through Games and Gamification

As children, we grow up on games. If someone doesn’t give us a game, we make one up. Games teach us how to work and function in life—through them, we learn cooperation, social hierarchy, winning and losing, and more. But, more than anything, games are meant to be fun!

In fact, that’s the secret about games. We approach them primarily as fun, but, in disguise, they’re about learning, whether you’re a high school student learning how the stock market works or a nonprofit professional learning how to better engage your donors.

Historically, it’s taken a while for structured education to come around to using games to their full potential. Think of our stereotypical educational environment. Children seated at desks in straight lines, attentively listening to the teacher at the head of the classroom. Even today in some places, if students misbehave, they might face some sort of physical or psychological punishment.

That’s hardly a game, and it’s far from the definition of fun. To help explain just what gamification is and show off just a little of its transformative power, this article will walkthrough:

  • Gamification Defined
  • The Boy Scouts: A Gamification Case Study
  • Gamification at Your Organization

The nonprofit training community has taken advantage of gamification for years to help professionals develop their skills. Anyone who has been to a corporate training event has probably experienced some kind of team building activity that feels a lot like a game. They’re fun, and, better yet, full of lessons about yourself and others.

But gamification, especially in today’s online, remote work environment, is a lot more than rope courses and trust falls.

Let’s start with what “gamification” of learning is.

Gamification Defined

Gamification leverages our emotional and psychological need for diversionary activities and achievement and uses them to motivate learners to educate themselves or others on important topics. For nonprofits, this can be anything from teaching your staff to educate donors about matching gifts to using Instagram for event promotion.

Using games and gamification in training comes in a lot of forms.

Some gamification takes advantage of our ability as humans to create metaphors. We engage in activities that are representations of our actual daily tasks, and we use them to draw lessons that apply directly to our situation.

Let’s say you are teaching a group of people from several charities how to ask for items for their nonprofit’s upcoming online auction. Sure, you could stand up in front of everyone, classroom style, and lecture them on the various phrases they could use to make their solicitation, and then test them on possible responses. That’s great, but it really doesn’t capture the emotional experience that forms long lasting memories and makes the information useful. For that, you need learners to actually practice asking for auction items—so you make a game of it.

Pair people up. Give background on a fictional nonprofit. Have each pair pick a slip of paper with different roles—some for item solicitors and some for item donors. You give each one a way to play their role. Have solicitors tell either a long or short story about your nonprofit and ask for a specific item or for sponsorship. For item donors, instruct them to say yes or say no and be difficult or easy to persuade by having them ask a lot of questions or sit in silence. Let them have fun and ham it up!

Games like this are meant to be fun and instructional. They aren’t about winners or losers, but providing information and resources for the participants—often more than they realize. Talk about body language, speaking tone, and anticipated expectations, as well as specific results. Even if someone will be tasked with post-auction duties and will never be in charge of asking for auction items, they will be better able to support those that do.

The Boy Scouts: A Gamification Case Study

Another kind of gamification plays on our need for achievement, and this one doesn’t require advanced gamification software.

For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts has been a great example of offline gamification in action. Scouting is built on a sequential series of small achievements earned by children between the ages of 10 to 18. And here’s the key: badges are organized from small, easy to earn achievements to more significant achievements which progress Scouts onto increasingly big and complex achievements.

Some of the Boy Scouts achievements are earned through games. For example, working with a team of Scouts to build a rope bridge is a game that teaches teamwork in addition to engineering skills. Finding your swim buddy when the lifeguard’s whistle blows may seem like a game, but it’s a serious swim safety technique, too.

Other achievements that address life skills, such as using social media responsibly, learning the signs of a heart attack, planning a product fundraiser, or attending civic meetings are much more serious.

At its most granular, a small achievement is recognized through the signature in their handbook of the person who “passes” them. When these smaller achievements are grouped together, a badge is awarded that signifies that they showed competency in a specific discipline (a merit badge). When the Scout masters several specific disciplines along with other supplemental activities, such as service projects, they are rewarded with a bigger symbol to show their overall competency, known as a “rank” in the form of another cloth badge.

The real genius is that the entire system rests not on the specifics learned, but on employing gamification in getting the Scout to want to learn. Consider this: From the rank of Scout to Eagle, the total cost of the earned badges and handbook is around $100. The value of what was learned and the pride it engenders? Priceless.

Gamification at Your Organization

How can you apply the lessons from the Boy Scouts to your organization? No, you don’t need to manufacture more than 100 cloth badges and have each employee display them on a sash. (Although, check out the apron of your nearest Starbucks or Home Depot employee to see badges in action. They’ll sometimes display pins or badges that speak to their training achievements.)

What you can do is create a system of achievements that lead to earning virtual “badges” that each employee can display online on their internal company or nonprofit bio. You can recognize their prowess in certain areas of importance with a small ceremony, and better yet, tie the achievements to human resources goals.

Research your options to figure out what gamification system fits with your organization’s needs. The right system will encourage your staff to drive towards completing key business and development goals, all while having fun and feeling accomplished through a simple game.

One of the best ways to start implementing gamification at your organization is to pair a game with another form of learning, such as a course from Nonprofit.Courses’ list of free webinars. This way, your efforts to help your team members learn will appeal to those who have different learning preferences and styles — some may respond better to a role-playing game, while others will gain more insight from a webinar, and everyone will be challenged with the learning style they aren’t as accustomed to.


Will games and gamification work for you? In these times of increasingly demanding jobs and employee shortages, making learning fun and motivational can do wonders for employee retention. Besides, who wouldn’t like to come home from work and say, “I played games all day”? Only you would know the truth—you learned a lot, too!


Special thanks to Matt Hugg, author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (https://nonprofit.courses), an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.

He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.

Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.

Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.