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Nonprofit organizations, and civil societies long before that, have always sought to bring like-minded and motivated people together to build community and solve social issues. Not much has changed regarding why motivated and hopeful people enter the nonprofit sector – to work, volunteer or support. But the challenges we face and the issues we seek to address can change over time – from severely needed social services like food and shelter to rates of addiction and poverty to global crises of climate change and education. No matter the cause, the work sometimes seems insurmountable. Therefore, for nonprofits to continue tackling such complex issues and systems, leaders must seek to create, support and sustain high-performing teams capable of enacting transformative change.
When considering performance in the nonprofit sector, it is difficult not to jump to conclusions about measurable outcomes and impact. However, for organizations to be impactful and meet the goals set by their diverse missions (and their funders), they must first be high-performing. For an organization to be high-performing, its team must be high-performing – capable of strong collaboration and innovation, driven by the mission and filled with trust and mutual respect. High-performing nonprofit teams are resilient, motivated and cared for. Team elements like culture, mission-centeredness, trust, diversity, and self-care are a few factors leading to high-performance teams in the nonprofit sector.
Recommendations for nonprofit leaders seeking to create high-performing teams:
- Prioritize all forms of diversity. Investing in all forms of diversity helps to motivate teams and expend mutual respect.
- Acknowledge team members’ identities (racial, gender, etc.) and their connection to your constituents. Creating safe spaces for self-identifying brings teams together and improves the quality of service.
- Be clear about the mission and preserve its prioritization. Remaining aligned with the organizational mission optimizes transformative behaviors like adaptability and preparedness.
- Concentrate on culture. Culture is created when spaces are built for employees to interact, commonly divulging work-related stress and finding comfort from their colleagues who understand the unique stressors of the organization.
- Build trust. Fostering and sustaining trust among staff and organizational leaders results in more collaboration and effective coordination and programming.
- Understand and respect self-care. Prioritization of self-care must come from the leadership team. With proper attention and vocalization of self-care, burnout is reduced, self-value is cultivated and camaraderie is formed.
- Seek opportunities for cooperation. Disassembling competition between nonprofit organizations and seeking opportunities to share resources helps legitimize the organization and build public trust.
As nonprofit leaders, we understand the responsibility granted to us by our constituents, our funders, our supporters and the public. Therefore, we must acknowledge that high-performance has to be achieved internally and at the organization level if it is to be achieved externally via programming and activities. So here is your challenge. Look inward. Get uncomfortable. Talk to each member of your team. Breath your mission. As nonprofit leaders, we know what our organizations and teams are capable of – and we believe in our capacity. So, let us commit here and now to ensure we take the necessary steps to create high-performing teams.
Diana Onuschak is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She is the director of administration and community engagement at Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), overseeing initiatives to provide better service to VLJ clients and volunteer attorneys. Diana is a crucial member of VLJ’s leadership team and oversees VLJ’s Pro Bono Opportunities listing for VLJ’s panel of volunteer attorneys. Prior to joining VLJ, Diana worked at Rutgers University and has substantial experience working and supporting nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Diana received her BS in Environmental Policy from Rutgers School of Environmental & Biological Sciences, with minors in Women’s Studies and Social Justice.
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