What Makes Small Teams Tick?

It’s ironic (or perhaps illuminating) that the attendance for YNPN Triangle NC’s most recent coffee talk was in the double digits. This time, our discussion focused on small teams, and the joys and challenges that come from working alone or with few others towards a common goal. The Triangle’s nonprofit sector is robust but still developing, which means that many organizations, start-ups, and social enterprises are still coming into their own. Others who have been around for decades find that keeping staff structure lean and versatile enables them to increase their impact.

Whatever the background of each organization is, we wanted to get to the bottom of what makes small, lean, and scrappy organizations tick. The bottom line? There is no prescribed path for achieving success as a small team. Whereas larger organizations may have processes in place to create a solid foundation, small teams can feel like they’re walking on shaky ground.

This sounds pessimistic, but it’s not. Launching a new business is hard. I would venture to say that launching a nonprofit is even more difficult, given that what an organization is “selling” is philanthropy, charity, or community development for something else that the “buyer” will sometimes never see. Creating the value for your supporters, volunteers, and board members takes a tremendous amount of work that, when it pays off, is incredibly rewarding.

To provide a bit of background, this topic is close to my heart as one of two staff members working for Carolina for Kibera’s office in the U.S. We have a companion office with 30 staff members and hundreds of volunteers in Kibera, Kenya, and much of the program design, operations, and strategy work is done by staff members who work directly with the Kibera community. As a result, the U.S. office takes a primary role in many other crucial nonprofit areas of engagement: communications and marketing, fundraising, and accounting, to name a few. Even though we’re celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, continued success is reliant on staff members finding ways to balance our time (without burning out!) and find the most effective ways to work towards achieving our mission.

Needless to say, this topic hit close to home for me.

Probably the biggest point of debate during our discussion was on the question of bringing in additional resource persons, either as additional hires, volunteers, part-time workers, or board members. I posed the question, “What’s stopping you from hiring someone else? A lack of money, time, or trust?” The answers people gave cut across all 3. The stakes are a bit higher when you’re working with a small team, because you can make a huge investment in someone that just doesn’t “fit” with your colleagues. Sometimes that person decides to leave because the job doesn’t turn into what they want it to be and they don’t feel like they’re being challenged. Maybe your supporters even get involved saying they don’t like that you’re expanding your staff and that they would prefer their donations to go directly to programs instead (the eternal struggle of working at a nonprofit)! Regardless of the reason, bringing someone else on board can pay off tremendously or it can be a large detriment to your organization’s goals.

Fortunately and unfortunately, that is the essential bargain of working in a small team. On the good side of the bargain: (1) You get to chart the course and provide vision for the organization. (2) You get to work independently and pay attention to areas that you think need to improve. (3) You answer to yourself and your board, which can sometimes be tricky but often is immensely rewarding.

On the bad side of the bargain: (1) You always have to have a back burner, and prioritize what’s urgent over what’s important in the long run. (2) Reporting structures might not always be clear, and you might not have anyone fighting to make you a better nonprofit professional. (3) The success of the organization is often attributed to your success or your few coworkers’ success.

So, how do you limit the disadvantages to working in a small team and capitalize on the advantages? We have 3 recommendations.

Seek help if you need it. Whether it’s from volunteers, third-party advisors, or additional staff, conduct a needs assessment and figure out how bringing on additional minds and voices who are different from you can strengthen your organization. There are many institutional barriers to doing this that we mentioned above, and those are valid; however, be honest with yourself about your current ability to do everything that needs to be done. If you can’t, it’s time to bite the bullet and bring in someone who can help.

Develop yourself as much as your organization. The harsh reality of working in a small team is that you will be judged by things out of your control -- such as a recessed economy, an unforeseen organizational catastrophe, or team members not pulling their own weight -- as much as things in your control. Furthermore, your efforts to go above and beyond might not get the appreciation they deserve. Our advice? Sometimes improving yourself is the best way to improve your organization. The benefit won’t always be explicit, but attending networking events, professional development courses, and taking the time to teach someone else (an intern, a new hire, a supporter) about your inner workings can provide a more solid foundation for you and/or your team.

Practice self-care. You’ve heard this phrase a million times, but it’s truth remains. Self-care in any organization is important, but its especially important when you make up 1/3, 1/2, or even the entirety of your staff. More responsibility is placed on you, which makes it harder to take breaks. Put the guilt aside and remember that you are not a martyr. Your organization serves you as much as you serve it.

And last but not least, at the end of the day, remember that the majority of nonprofits -- even the biggest ones -- started with small teams. Your passion, drive, and acumen will carry you far. When the time comes to expand, contract, or continue charting the course as is, (1) make an informed decision and commit to it, (2) get your priorities in order, and (3) remember that there are many others that are in the same boat.

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