Most non-profit organizations are feeling the economic crunch. They have not filled open positions; they have cut back budgets and staff positions; and/or they have asked staff to assume additional responsibilities to make up for the lack or loss of funding. When staff members have to assume take on new tasks and perform functions previously carried out by others it can become a source of ill feeling and tension that can impact on the entire organization. The challenge for the organization is to create a positive work environment that provides the opportunity for people to simultaneously fulfill their responsibilities and not feel exploited given the cut back in resources.
One approach to achieving this is to create a team or teams within the agency and to empower the employees to work together to complete their tasks. Creating a positive work environment will not only change the atmosphere but also enable people to be enthusiastic about their jobs. The team approach focuses on empowering people to work together to develop a way of working to accomplish a goal and enabling them to share in the implementation of what needs to be done.
In a non-profit organization teams can be created in a number of different ways. Sometimes a team is composed of people from various departments and disciplines and who are given the responsibility for working on agency wide issues such as a calendar of events or developing an in-service training program focusing on the entire staff of the organization. At other times, a team may be composed of staff from one department and they are charged with dealing with one or more challenges related to their functions in the agency. In either case, the team shares the responsibility for doing the work and “owns” the process of completing the task.
A team leader is appointed who is responsible for bringing together the individual members of the group so that they can each be responsible for one aspect of the teams work. At the same time, the leader sets the tone so that each member understands that their investment is not only what they have to do but also that they are a member of the group. Depending on the specific tasks to be accomplished the team leader will decide when it is important to facilitate a group decision making process and when it is necessary to provide direction and to give guidance so that the work is completed on time.
There is a delicate balance between delegating responsibility to the team so members feel they are enabled to complete their work at their own pace and at the same time to require them to complete the work within a specific time frame as required by the organization. It is crucial for them to have a sense of their investment in the work and their understanding that they are responsible for completing the task as a team. Each member of the team needs to have a sense of their contribution in strengthening the agency’s services to the community.
The expression, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, captures the true meaning of team work within an organization. The team’s accomplishments can enable the organization to provide better services in a more professional way to the target population. The underlying assumption is that people who are invested in their work group can achieve more than they can if they are working individually.
For example, the director of a mutli-functional community agency that has had to cut back staff can either rearrange the workers schedule and announce the changes at a staff meeting or a staff team can be delegated to think through the staffing issues and to suggest a way of providing the maximum staff coverage within the limitations. Individual staff members do not want to feel they are being assigned additional hours, however, if a staff team proposes that each staff member will work the same amount of time so clients can receive the needed services, the recommendation may be received differently by the staff.
The impact is not only felt by the professional staff members. Often administrative staff is required to cover for staff vacant staff positions as a result of attrition through retirement or by people moving to a different location. Teams composed of administrative staff people can also be called upon to come up with creative solutions for manpower issues faced by their departments. Depending on the nature of the organization it is often advisable to mix administrative and professional staff members on the same team as it often leads to “thinking out of the box” as creative solutions to these issues are discussed by inter-disciplinary groups.
There are no easy solutions in dealing with the new reality created by the financial situations non-profit agencies are experiencing at the present time. However, there are creative approaches that can ease the pressure and develop untapped resources in every organization. Creating staff teams to work together to deal with some of the challenges may prove to be a helpful approach that will have benefits for today and tomorrow. This can be a way to establish a new culture of cooperative work within the non-profit agency.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.