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6 Tips for Building Dynamic Volunteer Teams – When Your Business Depends on It February 25th, 2020

At many small-sized non-profits contributions from volunteers are critical for success. Volunteers can sometimes even act as an extension of staff, helping to deliver programming, conduct outreach, and access resources. This is certainly the case for Endeavour. Not only do we rely on skilled volunteers to carry out the organization’s mission of providing pro bono consulting to non-profits, our volunteers are also representing Endeavour out in the community through their interactions and the quality of their work. Thus for Endeavour nurturing our relationships is essential to keeping our volunteers committed, our clients satisfied, and to Endeavour’s sustainability as an organization. But what can time and resource strapped non-profits do to stay on top of good volunteer management practices?

Psychological safety, a term first coined by behavioural scientist Amy Edmonson, may provide some answers. It refers to a belief shared among members of a team that it is safe to take interpersonal risks. It is predicated on group values that include trust and mutual respect which enables members to fully engage without fear of having their ideas ridiculed or dismissed regardless of their position on the team. This greater engagement leads to more productive and successful teams. In fact, there has been a growing shift to adopt these principles in management and leadership as organizations increasingly recognize the connection between how positive team dynamics can foster environments in which teams thrive and strengthen their competitive advantage.

Non-profits that rely on teams of volunteers can also benefit  from this approach. Natalie Dykes, Co-Director of Training and Development, prepares each cohort of Endeavour’s Engagement Managers and their teams of pro-bono consultants for their projects. With each round of new recruits Natalie emphasizes the significance of nurturing a positive team environment. She notes, “Over the years we’ve facilitated over 120 pro bono consulting teams and in our training sessions we try to drive home the message that without an agreed upon foundation of trust, respect, and clear expectations, members can feel hesitant to share their ideas or voice concerns. This can hamper creative thinking and ultimately impacts the quality of a team’s work.” She adds, “On the other hand, when team leaders and members consciously commit to an open minded and supportive team culture that welcomes vulnerability, creative ideas can flow freely and we’ve seen teams create tremendous value for our non-profit clients through leveraging the best skills of everyone on the team.”

Natalie offers these 6 tips to help nonprofits foster a culture of psychological safety on their teams and with their volunteers, to be able to fully leverage the skills that they bring:

1. Lead from the Front

Demonstrate the behaviours and attitudes you’d like to see your team exhibit. In a new team environment, members are looking to their leader to understand what type of behaviour and communication is the norm in this setting, and what actions and communication styles will help them succeed. This is especially important if your volunteers will be working in the community as they will base their conduct on what they observe from staff. By modeling open communication, honesty, integrity, open-mindedness and a collaborative approach, you create team norms that foster effective teamwork. Remember, as the leader, you set the tone.

2. Be Vulnerable and Show Empathy

Open up to the team to show you trust them with personal information. Admit mistakes and show them you’re human and not perfect. This creates a space for others to do the same. When the team opens up and shows vulnerability, be sure to respond with empathy and understanding.

3. Together, Define How You’ll Collaborate

Take the time to decide as a team how you’ll work together. Setting expectations for even the little things, such as expected response time to emails, how team decisions will be made (majority rules? 100% consensus?) and even the cadence and length of meetings, can remove the opportunity for mismatched expectations based on assumptions. Remember, your volunteers don’t spend as much time in the office as staff do so they need a little extra support to understand the systems, procedures and norms that you’ve developed with colleagues overtime. Structure and clear expectations help everyone to understand their role, and minimize frustrations and tension down the road.

4. Build Individual Relationships
It’s important to remember that volunteers often get involved with your organization because they are passionate about the cause. Volunteering should be a fulfilling and motivating experience so it’s important to build relationships to get to know your volunteers and understand what brought them to your organization. Talk to them about their goals and what they hope to get out of their time working with you. This can help you tailor the experience for each individual as applicable, leading to a much more productive experience.

5. Create Space for Everyone

Some voices naturally rise above others, and volunteers may feel they are supposed to do what is requested of them rather than actively contribute ideas. To benefit from the perspectives of your volunteers consciously create space for them and quieter team members to share their ideas in ways they’re comfortable. For example, sending brainstorming topics out in advance to allow more introverted team members time to gather and prepare their thoughts may help them be more comfortable speaking up. Alternatively, a team leader or meeting moderator can take time to do a round table and ensure everyone’s ideas are voiced. By going out of the way to ensure all team members feel comfortable contributing, you are actively working against group-think by encouraging dissenting opinions, healthy debate and the sharing of “crazy ideas”.

6. Acknowledge and celebrate effort and success.

Celebrate a strong effort as much as you celebrate a milestone. Acknowledge and thank team members for their contributions, especially when they reinforce the positive norms of the team (diversity of thought, inclusion, maintaining a safe space, etc.).  As a leader, the continued and consistent reinforcement of team norms further solidifies team culture.

At Endeavour, volunteers from a wide variety of professional backgrounds are put on a team for 6 months to tackle complex problems from our non-profit clients. We share the tips above to provide a roadmap to leaders and consultants for how to get the most out of their diverse experience and collaborate to provide the most value possible to their clients. So far, we’ve seen truly remarkable results. 

Natalie Dykes is the Co-Director of Training & Development for Endeavor. Her passion for the people side of business is what led her to complete a Master’s in Organizational Psychology in the Netherlands. She has worked with a range of companies & industries holding roles in operations, sales,  finance and IT teams, and currently advises on how to manage the “people side” of new technology implementations.

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