Nonprofits are born out of the desire to make a positive impact in the world.
Whether it be meeting a need where there is hunger; offering healing where there is pain; providing comfort where there is grief; or fighting for justice where there is inequality…nonprofits are driven by this desire to make a difference.
This makes working for a nonprofit a rewarding, powerful, and invigorating experience. To be a part of shedding light into some corner of the darkness is a great privilege.
However, it is also a daunting task. To take it upon oneself to address even one of the many problems in the world is not a simple thing. It requires lots of hard work, and frequently is not rewarded by a hefty salary. On the contrary, many nonprofits start out as a small team fueled by intense passion, but lacking the necessary funds for a full staff. There is always much to do, but there are not always many to do the work.
While ideally an organization would be able to fill each individual role with a designated employee, there are many situations where this is simply not possible. Some organizations are run entirely by volunteers; others may only be able to pay one or two employees; and some may have a well-sized staff but experience sudden growth beyond their current capacity. Whatever the case may be, there are many scenarios in which nonprofits must learn how to make the most of a small team to make a big impact.
This is not impossible, although it also isn’t easy! Organizing a small team in an effective way requires strategy, communication, and a clear vision of what is most important. Here are a few ways that any nonprofit can begin evaluating and structuring a small team to make a big impact.
1. Have a Clear Vision
The smaller the team, the easier it is to notice when somebody has lost their sense of direction. That is why it is crucial, especially for a smaller nonprofit, to define, understand, and continually place before them their purpose.
If your organization already has a vision and mission statement, this would be a perfect time to sit down and evaluate what those are. If your organization does not yet have these statements, creating a vision and mission statement is a great place to start.
It is important to answer questions such as:
- Why do we exist?
- What issue/problem/need does our organization seek to address?
- How are we addressing this problem?
- Why do we believe this is an effective way to address this issue/problem/need?
- What makes us different from other organizations?
- Who is our organization seeking to reach?
These statements should not only be talked about once, but refreshed continually. Print it out and put it on the office door, talk through them a few times a year, and don’t let them become forgotten. A team should be reminded of the why behind the work on a regular basis. This is the most important step to becoming an effective team, whether big or small. A team must understand and be passionate about the vision behind the work!
2. Understand Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
It is vital to know what skills each team member has (or does not have), and what tasks each member particularly likes or dislikes. When working with a small team, there may not always be the opportunity to pick and choose tasks based on personal interest. It can be easy to get in survival mode, with each member tackling whatever task comes their way simply because it needs to get done.
This is necessary at times, yet an organization will run much more smoothly when everyone is not consistently being assigned to jobs that they struggle with or strongly dislike. Try to understand each member of your team…what they enjoy doing, what they have experience in, and what they do not like doing. When possible, try to work around these personal strengths/weaknesses and preferences to maximize the work of each team member.
3. Make it a Group Effort
In many workplaces, employees are expected to handle one area of expertise, and can generally stay out of all other areas. This cannot be the case when working with a small nonprofit team. There must be give and take. Everyone must be willing to jump out of their role occasionally to help another teammate.
If the team is too small to fill every role, it would be incredibly detrimental to try and assign five labels to each person and then leave them to sink or swim. Rather, assign what is possible, and then come to an understanding that it is a group effort. Be willing to work outside of your normal area of responsibility and help your teammates. With this kind of mindset, a team can truly accomplish anything.
4. Grow Together
A growing team is a thriving team! Small teams must constantly grow and acquire new skills. What happens when there isn’t a marketing professional, graphic designer, website builder, or fundraiser on board? Is it time to give up? To settle for mediocre work? No! It’s time to learn.
Don’t settle for your current skillset. Listen to webinars, attend training seminars, read books, watch tutorials, take online courses…do whatever it takes to acquire new skills. Encourage this within the workplace. Equip your team with the tools to grow, and possibly even schedule in some training time together. There will be plenty of moments when you encounter something new or difficult. If these moments are met with opportunities to learn and grow, they can be overcome!
5. Utilize Technology
There is affordable (or free) technology available to make almost every process easier for us within the nonprofit sector. Taking advantage of this technology will allow your team to focus more on the things that only they can do, and let these services take care of the rest. If you are sending out a large email campaign, use a free or discounted service to easily make your campaign beautiful and simple. If you are hosting a major fundraiser, use an event software to help streamline the process and maintain a database to make the next event even easier. Do not reinvent the wheel by doing everything manually or on your own. There is a plethora of available technology that can help equip and empower your team with everything they need for success!
6. Do Your Best…and Then Rest
It is important to acknowledge personal limits. Jobs focused on the welfare of humanity have a common thread among them: a tendency toward overworking, exhaustion, and burnout. It’s easy to justify perfectionism and overextending oneself when it’s for a good cause. The irony is this: to make the biggest impact, sometimes you need to do less.
If you want to make a big impact with your small team, it is crucial that you guard one another against burnout and exhaustion. If there are only two of you, don’t expect the work of ten. If you are relying heavily on volunteers, don’t expect the work of a full paid staff. Barreling through too much work and ending up in a state of burnout can not only be scary, but can severely damage your team. Figure out what tasks are the most important, and do them to the best of your ability. Acknowledge your limits, and your team’s limits. Lean on each other. And allow yourselves to rest. You will accomplish more as a healthy team than you will as an exhausted one.
Working with a small team for a big purpose can be overwhelming…but it can also be incredibly powerful! Taking these five practices and making them a part of your nonprofit will help you to create a positive culture within your team that enables each member to thrive and be used to their fullest potential. When this is happening effectively, even the smallest of teams can make a huge impact in the world!