Effective Nonprofit Teams

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could rally our team members like this? 

We all face our share of external problems. Funding. Donor attrition. Sustainability. A crappy economy. Et al et cetera.

Having worked in the nonprofit field for a decade, I’ve been through my share of external drama. But if I had to pinpoint the biggest stress sources in my day-to-day worklife, nearly all were caused by internal drama. Perhaps I’m an undying optimist when it comes to the external – the challenges of donors and funding and programming are tough, but I love a good challenge. But when a team is broken, it’s really hard for a cog in the wheel to fix it. But I’ll try to be optimistic. Let’s look at some common problems (from “simple” to “complex”) that affect nonprofit teams, and what you can do to alleviate the pressure on yourself. A shocker, perhaps: when you take care of your own professional needs in a respectful way, you’re being a good teammate by encouraging others to do the same

Some Common Problems

Squeaky team members. Maybe they talk a lot, or invade your space without knocking. They monopolize meeting time, they always seem to find a way to make their mandate more important than everyone else’s. Maybe they’re gossipy or like to nose in on your job in a boundary-disrespecting way. Or maybe, quite simply, your personalities don’t jive and you find them insufferable on every level, to the point where even how they sip their coffee sends your blood pressure soaring.

Unclear job descriptions. What exactly are you and everyone doing here? We can likely talk about what we do on a large scale, but what if you were asked to list every little task you do? Likely you’ve picked up a few extra tasks along the way, simply because they needed to get done or it was just easier to do it yourself. The problem lies in when you break these tasks down and realize that you’re doing someone else’s job, or someone else is doing yours.

Information silos. Isn’t it funny how in a world that is disgustingly connected, we still don’t know what the hell is going on across the hall? Fundraisers don’t know what communications is doing. Communications isn’t up to speed on programs. Programs hasn’t talked to finance. Finance has delayed updating resource development, who haven’t told their fundraising staff. Meanwhile your ED hasn’t told you that none of it matters because the board is likely going to scrap the whole thing. Aiy. This sucks, and yet happens all too often.

Useless meetings. On the opposite end of no information is ALL THE INFORMATION! Does this sound familiar? Team meeting to plan smaller team meeting to plan individual meetings, insert work, come back to another team meeting where no one has done anything and you rehash everything from the original meeting.There seems to be a disconnect between communicating and understanding. Much like the difference between hearing and listening, there is a tendency to think that a lot of meetings means a lot of work is getting done. On the contrary, meetings are pricey and wasteful, albeit still necessary.

Quick Exercise: Do a calculation from your own calendar: how many hours are you spending every week in meetings that go no where? Figure out how much your organisation is paying you for that wasted time. Now guesstimate how much that would translate to across the organisation for those 3 hour all staff meetings.

Poor change or conflict management. Why such an aversion to change and conflict in the nonprofit world? Inability to manage change, in the sector and in the office, will cause conflict. Avoiding conflict is a time waster, and one that creates a false sense of unity on the team.

Shitty management. Let’s get out our wiktionaries:

Management in business and organizations means to coordinate the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively. Management comprises planning, organizing, staffing, leading or directing, and controlling an organization or initiative to accomplish a goal. Resourcing encompasses the deployment of human resources, financial resources, technological resources, and natural resources. Shitty Management is unable to coordinate people to accomplish anything, with futile attempts at planning and organizing, leading to complete chaos of every kind of resource. 

Nightmare board. Power hungry. Indecisive. Self-promoting. Old boys club. Don’t understand the difference between operations and governance. Don’t get fundraising, communications, technology, or (truthfully) anything about the organisation, it’s mission and how it does its work. Sock puppet. Worse yet, puppet master. I feel for you, friend. When left unchecked, this group or particular individual can leave a path of destruction.

Uninspiring leadership. Leadership and management are not the same things. They aren’t mutually inclusive. And without great leadership at every organisational level, you’re likely plummeting in a tailspin. No vision? No strategy? Feel like the mission is a moving target of unexplained platitudes? Inability to rally the troops? Read this list and think “uh huh… that’s familiar!” You’ve got bad leadership, my friend.

Some Possible Band-aids

There’s a reason why I call these Band-aids. Unfortunately a lot of these problems can cause an organisation to mutate out of control – in the perfect storm (where all exist) I’d suggest you cut your losses. But there are things you can do to help alleviate these situations without becoming a martyr for a hopeless cause. And if everyone could begin to do the same, things could turn around.

Set Team Boundaries. We spend a lot of time with our co-workers, and we need to be able to get along. Start by keeping your own personal/professional boundaries in check. Learn to flex your diplomacy muscles and advocate for appropriate boundaries in the work environment. While your approach may seem like a slight to some, the team will learn to respond respectfully and perhaps even learn to create healthy boundaries for themselves.

Review Your Job Description Regularly. Look at the one you were given upon hire or the latest version you can find, and compare it to that list of stuff you actually do. Out of sync? If you can, talk to your supervisor or manager about it. If you can’t, start whittling down. Are you the major gifts officer but for some reason you’re always ordering supplies? Stop it. Let the paper and whiteout run out. And when people blow a gasket (which they might) the issue of “whose job is it to handle facilities and supplies?” will be dealt with. And hopefully it doesn’t fall back to you or some other undeserving and already too busy fool.

Be Transparent About The Work You’re Doing. If the communications chain of command is broken, make your own. You see/hear/do/know something from your work that affects someone else? Take the time to use the appropriate communication channel to connect with that person. Don’t wait to be asked – be proactive, not reactive, and start breaking down those silos instead of banging your face on your desk.

Say No. Sometimes. There are instances when meetings need to happen, and instances where they definitely don’t. If you don’t think it’s meaningful, say no. If it’s mandatory and you know it is going to be useless, push to see an agenda and timeline, meeting objectives, who’ll be taking notes, who’ll be leading the meeting, and push for accountability (action items, who’s responsible for what.) One of two things will happen: your eager insistence to make meetings suck less will make them suck less, or you’ll be such a pain in the ass that people will stop inviting you to needless meetings.

Be A Committed, Flexible Problem Solver. When change and conflict arise, it’s easy to sit back and complain. Stop that, Señor Whinypants. Be supportive of your team members and offer solutions, not complaints. And if you don’t have suggestions for easing through this rough patch, simply try to stay positive.

Keep It At A Level. When you have a shitty manager, there’s a tendency to be a shitty employee. The desire to respond in kind to the passive aggression, poor planning, and all around ridiculousness is strong, but don’t give in. Document everything, both in your own work and with “incidents” that take place. Do your best to do great work on your own terms (keep your boundaries in check!) If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to voice your concerns in a safe environment, do it. Though I know this seldom is the case.

Put A Board Member Between You And The Problem. This is tough if they all suck. But likely there’s someone who’s less sucky. Ultimately, it’s the board’s job to deal with itself, and if this is trickling down to staff’s day-to-day, it has become beyond reasonable board jurisdiction and needs to be dealt with. If there is an issue in regards to your professional ethics (ie, the board is giving you pressure to raise funds in a way you’re not comfortable with) stick to your guns and be transparent about your professional philosophy.

Lead From The Bottom Up. Or from the middle. Or from wherever you are. You’ve heard these terms before. It is crucial for successful organisations to have leadership woven into every level. If you are passionate about your job and have stuck around despite the bullshit, well, I’d say you’ve got what it takes to step up and be a leader – it’s not about fancy titles or hierarchical power. It’s about asking good questions, being responsible, being smart, and being enthusiastic.

There are thousands of articles out there about teams, and about each of these areas specifically. In my opinion, some of them are fabulous. And some are total bullshit. My biggest word of advice is to trust your gut. You’re a good person, and you’re trying your best to do a good job. Most of your teammates (hopefully all!) are exactly the same. There’s no magic potion for making it work, but chances are if you’re in this sector you’ve got a great sense of people, and will be able to work your own sensibilities for the good of your own health and for those around you.

I hope to explore these topics more in detail in the future, and talk to some of you about how you’ve dealt with your own team nightmares.