Rethinking Team Dependency: A Blueprint for Volunteer Organizations

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In many teams, a common yet often unintentional pattern emerges: a heavy dependence on individual members rather than on the collective team and its processes. While this might seem manageable in the short term, especially during transitional phases, it’s a risky and unsustainable strategy in the long run. This is particularly true in volunteer environments, where organizational structures and resources are typically more limited, making it crucial to avoid such dependencies.

Are You at Risk? A Thought Experiment

Imagine this scenario: a key member of your team is unexpectedly off for a month starting tomorrow. They haven’t shared access to their email or cloud files, and their physical notes are out of reach. How significantly would this impact your team’s operations? It’s an unlikely situation, sure, but similar unexpected events can and do occur. The time to address this potential issue is now, not when it becomes an unavoidable problem.

Empowering Your Volunteer Teams: Effective Strategies

  1. Spread the Skills: Train multiple volunteers in similar tasks and processes. This not only shares the workload but also increases your team’s capacity and reduces risks. Encourage volunteers who acquire new skills to teach others. A broad base of members with foundational skills is incredibly valuable.
  2. Document Everything (Well, Almost): Essential processes, tasks, and responsibilities should be well-documented. This doesn’t mean recording every minute detail, but enough to ensure someone else can seamlessly take over as needed. Remember, documentation can take many forms: emails, online documents, websites, or even videos. The key is to make it accessible and easy to understand.
  3. Encourage Sharing and Collaboration: Silos can form in any organization, including volunteer-driven ones. It’s vital to find ways of sharing information that align with your organization’s culture. Be clear in your communications, distinguishing between FYIs and calls for collaboration. Encourage openness in sharing experiences, feedback, and ideas.
  4. Implement ‘Musical Chairs’: Rotate responsibilities among volunteers. This approach helps distribute workload, fosters confidence, and reduces dependency on specific individuals.
  5. Succession Planning: Succession planning should begin as soon as someone steps into a leadership role. By preparing future leaders and establishing a smooth handover process, leaders can step aside when necessary, knowing the organization remains in capable hands.
  6. Utilize Technology and Tools: Utilize technology to automate repetitive but essential tasks, such as sending reminder emails. Focus on areas with high error risks or bottlenecks. The aim is to reduce human involvement in error-prone processes, enhancing efficiency and allowing volunteers to concentrate on tasks that require personal attention. This strategic use of automation can significantly improve your organization’s functionality.

Strategies in Action

As the secretary of our Rotary Club, a volunteer-driven service organization, I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges of transitioning post-pandemic. We quickly realized that our old methods wouldn’t suffice for the future, prompting us to actively seek new directions. Ironically, in this process, I initially fell into the very trap I now advise against: over-relying on individual members. This experience taught me the importance of rethinking team dependencies. Reflecting on this, I understand that applying effective strategies from the outset would have been simpler than trying to rectify dependencies later. So, instead of saying “do as I say, not as I do,” I’m sharing my journey of adapting and learning to foster a more resilient team structure.

  1. Spread the Skills: My current role in the Rotary Club isn’t one I hold indefinitely. Whenever possible, I teach others how to handle my responsibilities. Even if they do things differently, the essential tasks can still be completed without me.
  2. Document Everything (Well, Almost): Effective documentation involves two key aspects: choosing the right content to document and ensuring accessibility. I’ve experimented with various formats, including emails, cloud documents, and videos. For ease of access, I strongly believe in making information as reachable as possible. Considering privacy, a lot of our documentation is now on the club’s website, allowing any member to access information easily without the need for usernames and passwords. This centralizes updates and avoids reliance on outdated email chains.
  3. Encourage Sharing and Collaboration: It’s important to keep everyone in the loop, especially those directly affected by changes or updates. I clearly indicate when feedback is or isn’t necessary. However, email chains can be limiting for collaboration, especially when joining late into a long thread. To improve this, we’ve started using chat tools like WhatsApp for more fluid conversations.
  4. Implement ‘Musical Chairs’: Our club uses ‘Fellowship Teams’ that rotate monthly for various roles in meetings. This system allows members to learn new roles and build skills, with each team organizing in the way they find most effective.
  5. Succession Planning: In preparing for my eventual departure as Club secretary, I’ve considered the best ways to pass on my knowledge and responsibilities. Although our roles are democratically elected, early planning ensures a smoother transition for my successor.
  6. Utilize Technology and Tools: One significant improvement we’ve made is in meal pre-ordering for club meetings. We’ve eliminated the need for manual reminders and order collection. Now, members can easily find a link to an online order form on our website, which automatically closes at a cutoff time and sends orders to the caterer and our finance team. Instead of weekly payments, members are billed quarterly, making most of the process hands-off and more efficient.

Rethinking team dependencies may be challenging, but it’s essential for your team’s success. Your team has put in tremendous effort to reach your current position; don’t let dependencies become a setback. Start by addressing the areas most at risk and work your way through the rest. It’s important to communicate with your team about why minimizing dependencies is crucial and to discuss potential strategies for improvement. Consider using the thought experiment of a team member suddenly going on vacation to highlight areas of vulnerability. With dedication and effort, you and your team can reach a state where dependencies no longer impede your progress.

Disclaimer: The author was responsible for crafting the content, ideas, and structure of this post. AI was utilized to enhance clarity and address grammatical/spelling errors. Any opinions conveyed in the blog post are the author’s own.