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Are you leading a team or a group?

May 31, 2022

Many organizations, particularly not-for-profits that rely on volunteers, can have a tendency to want to place everyone on the “same team”.  The assumption is that they’re all somehow one big family equally invested in the same mission. It can even sound like vision. The language of team sometimes works to make people feel included and attempts to create an aura of general “ownership” or a collective corporate support.   But are they really on a team?

Sometimes we say we’re leading a team, when what we’re actually doing is nurturing or facilitating a group.  Maybe a group of people with relational connections surrounded by some common interest or activity, but a group none the less.  These individuals might show up and participate in some activity when it’s convenient and when it doesn’t interfere with “more important” opportunities – because, well, they’re kind and like to help out once and a while.

The reality is that unless there is either a transactional relationship involving compensstion, or some deeply held conviction to the mission or cause, there should be no reason to expect anyone to show up consistently.  And when we depend on teams of volunteers to repeatedly execute important recurring tasks, the wrong motivation can lead to recurring dilemmas.

Prospecting for a volunteer team is much different than recruiting a volunteer to show up one time to perform a task.

A team, by definition, generally has some specific characteristics.

team is defined as a group of people who perform interdependent tasks to work toward accomplishing a common mission or specific objective. Some teams have a limited life: for example, a design team developing a new product, or a continuous process improvement team organized to solve a particular problem. › quality-resources › teams

The collective goal, is the advancement of a common mission (i.e. moving a ball down the field, or winning the game or games). Genuine ongoing commitment primarily comes from the passion for the mission, not necessarily the enjoyment of participating, the relational bonding, or even compensation.

Spectators, the fans who come and support their favorite ball club, can certainly view themselves as part of “the team” or family connected by a brand.  But they are not interdependent contributors to the game the way the players on the field are.  Fans and other stakeholders are under no obligation or expectation to show up, buy tickets, or even view a particular game.

But most importantly, what separates a team member from a spectator or relational participant in a group, is that team members have to show up in order for the game to play, and they must selflessly participate as needed to advance the mission. They feel concern and responsibility when the mission is not cared for.

-Gary Yonek

Two primary elements in a functioning team is that participants must have some level of interdependent contribution combined with a desire, ability, and commitment to show up consistently. (The greatest ability is availability.)

When developing an actual team of volunteers, one primary goal of the leader is to ignite a passion – not for a specific skill or connection with others, but a passion for the mission and greater purpose for which they are serving. Something bigger than themselves.  High capacity volunteers will sacrifice time and prioritize their effort, even without financial compensation, if they are firmly bought into the long term “why” and possess an authentic sense of purpose.  They are also more likely to continue when things get hard or frustrating, when the procedure or leaders change, or when they get bored or distracted for a season.  They must internalize the vision and personally believe that what they do actually matters. This passion (having an undying belief in a cause) can not be developed with a snappy catch phrase or quick recruitment pitch over coffee. The key to a successful, healthy, and functional volunteer team is to place the right people in the right roles for the right reasons.  Otherwise, what you often end up with is little more than a group of names on a list of those who may occasionally help to pitch in only if and when they’re available or are in need for some type of community.

  • Does your volunteer team really understand the “why” of what they’re contributing to? And do they visualize how it fits in to a long term mission of your organization?
  • As a leader can you accurately and passionately explain why your team exists and who benefits from your collective efforts? 
  • Do you regularly revisit the purpose with each team member individually as well as communicate with the team collectively to help neutralize mission drift and vision leak?

Prospecting and developing high capacity volunteers is not cheap. It takes an intentional and ongoing investment of time, energy and financial resources – in addition to building trustworthy relationships along the way.

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