For the last few years, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd has offered an online introduction to volunteer management course. The feedback I get from those who take the course is that they find the section on effective volunteer teams really valuable. So, when the online course closed at the end of 2018 I started looking into how I might address this issue of volunteer teams in a different way. What I found surprised me and made me wonder if we might sometimes have the wrong approach to volunteer teams.

NCVO’s recent Time Well Spent report highlights that when people volunteer they rarely do so alone, frequently they meet and work with new people. Unsurprisingly, this can have a direct bearing on the volunteer’s experience – volunteer with people you get on with and all is well, volunteer with people you don’t get on with and dissatisfaction isn’t far away.

From a volunteer management perspective, whilst we always want people to have a great experience volunteering, we also need them to deliver for the organisation. This means that building teams of volunteers who can work together harmoniously and achieve great things is a balancing act and an important priority for any volunteer manager.

Often, our first step to forming a good volunteers team is recruiting the right people onto it, people with the experience you need to get the job done. Yet it seems this focus on the individuals who we form into a team may not be the best approach.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant

In a 2013 Huffington post article by Adam Grant, Wharton Business School professor and author of the excellent book, Originals, Grant makes the following observations:

”In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.”

”A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1 percent. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.”

“The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anaesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.”

Grant continues:

“In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past.”

“Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In ‘Leading Teams’, he argues that in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability — whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.”

Grant’s observations got me thinking about volunteer recruitment and retention, how they relate to teams and what we may need to do differently.

Recruitment

As noted earlier, many of us recruit talented and experience individuals and form them into a volunteer team to achieve a particular goal. They go through Tuckman’s stages of group development – forming, storming, norming and performing – and hopefully stay together long enough to get the job done.

Yet, if Grant is correct and group experience is key, should we be reframing our volunteer recruitment efforts? Should we instead seeking out established teams of people, teams who would bring the right skills and collaborative talents to bear on the issue we want tackling? We might find them in businesses, the public sector or other civil society organisations. They could, for example, be a group of friends who have had success in running events for their community and could use that collective experience to help with your next event.

However we find them, Adam Grant’s observations seems to suggest that we should be making more of an effort to seek out existing teams and bring their collective experience to bear on our missions, rather than trying to form new teams from experienced but unconnected individuals.

Retention

In his Huffington post article, Grant remarks that:

“Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.”

This presents a big challenge for us in volunteer management. We know people are giving less time and wanting to engage in shorter term, more project oriented roles (at least initially). The Time Well Spent report makes this case very well. So, how do we keep our teams driving the bus together for long enough to have real impact on our work?

I think the principles that would work are the same as those that would work for individual volunteers.

You’ll notice I said earlier that short term, project roles may be attractive ‘at least initially’. That’s because I don’t believe we can’t find volunteers who will give us a long-term commitment, I just think we’ll struggle to find people who will sign up to such a role on day one.

Instead, we have to find ways to keep people interested and engaged, delivering enjoyable volunteering experiences and allowing them the flexibility to come and go as suits them.

Give me such a role I’ll probably increase my commitment over time because I enjoy my volunteering with you and am not made to feel guilty if I need to take a break.

I’m convinced that just as this will work for individuals, so it’ll work for teams. To expand on Adam Grant’s analogy, we want to get the right group of people on the bus, have them drive to together for a while, not worry when they all get off for a bit, but welcome them all back on further down the road.

A red double-decker London bus
A red double-decker London bus

Of course of none of this will be easy. Shifting to group recruitment and retention strategies will present come challenges. We’ll have to try new approaches. Which means risk and the possibility of failure. Yet from such failure will come new ideas and approaches that will work better and better until we get it right.

So, over to you:

  • Have you tried recruiting existing teams to work on volunteer projects?
  • What worked well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Are group retention strategies something you’re currently trying?
  • Would you be willing to share any success or lessons learnt?

I look forward to reading your comments.

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One thought on “We need to talk about volunteer teams

  1. Working with teams takes more time than I imagined. There are so many dynamics at play. My social work degree came in handy as i related what I was seeing to some of the :hidden agendas” I learned about for group work. Sounds negative but it is simply cautionary.

    One thing that I learned as I recruited individuals to be part of a team is that you need to include your team leader or facilitator in your recruitment interviews. After I recruited and worked to turn over the project to the facilitator the team started dissipating into thin air. It is all about relationships. So many volunteers join a group because they like/respect/trust the volunteer manager. If that person is planning on stepping back once the group is formed they would be best off building the relationship with the volunteer leader from the start.

    Like

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