Supporting Staff and Volunteers

Working with vulnerable and displaced populations is inherently stressful. As is advocacy for human rights in the face of opposing interests. The ability to develop healthy coping strategies in the face of these pressures is not innate, but must be learnt and practiced. The following section elaborates on how to cultivate and practice self-care techniques as an individual, and how to promote a supportive environment as an organization.

Whilst discreet team-building exercises such as sports, retreats or other group activities can help foster a friendly working environment, team-building is best fostered by a general organizational culture that reinforces openness, mutual support on a daily basis.

Constructive criticism, learning from failure, encouraging innovation and risk-taking are all part of building a healthy, interesting and engaging working environment. Celebrate and share successes in colleagues’ personal and professional lives, ensuring people can relate to each other on other levels rather than just work. Maintain a good sense of humor when confronted with difficult situations, and encourage others to do so too. Be approachable. Keep doors open (when confidentiality duties allow). Create a positive, comfortable physical environment where possible. Publicly acknowledge jobs well done.

One particular way to contribute to the satisfaction of your workforce is to meaningfully take into account their professional development needs and wishes. This is especially key if you are a resource-strapped nonprofit with relatively low salaries and wish to improve staff retention and appreciation in alternative ways. Alternating routine working duties with a change of scenery and activity – as offered by group trainings, or exposure to educational or topic-relevant films or presentations can help re-kindle an individual’s original interest in an issue and permits them to step outside their immediate area of focus and gain a broader perspective.

The following sections outline staff and volunteer training possibilities, which are essential to the growth of well-rounded, competent and confident professionals, and in turn the growth and improvement of your organization.

What is organizational culture?

In simplest of terms, an organization’s culture is how it gets things done. It includes the organization’s values, visions, practices, symbols, history, language, beliefs, setting and habits. Whether it is defined or not, all organizations have a culture. There can be both positive and negative aspects of an organization’s culture that affect work ethic, productivity, efficiency, and success in achieving goals and completing projects.  For an organization with offices in different regions or countries, there can be a dominant culture and subcultures. The dominant culture is the mission and values shared across the entire organization and then subcultures that may differ from location to location.

Good culture

Culture within any company or organization is an important factor to consider in ensuring a good work environment, productivity, staff retention, and accomplishing the mission. The following are generally considered positive cultural attributes for a company or organization:

  • Candor/transparency
  • Team cohesiveness
  • Shared values
  • Clear leadership
  • Consistency
  • Appreciation for diversity
  • Motivation
  • Healthy communication

For nonprofit organizational culture, communication is of prime importance. Good communication fosters trust, effective leadership and inclusivity. A nonprofit culture is different than culture in for-profit industry because incentive and motivation are not based on salary increases, they generally come from a passion for the mission. Because of this it is important to maintain enthusiasm in staff by having a positive atmosphere, acknowledging achievements, and communicating effectively

Bad culture

According to Patrick Lencioni’s book, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, the following are the biggest problems with culture within a company:

  • Absence of trust: A lack of trust can hinder communication because staff members are timid to ask for clarification or help.
  • Fear of conflict: This fear can create ongoing unspoken conflict that festers and then has a negative effect on productivity in meetings or group work.
  • Lack of commitment: A lack of commitment also hinders productivity, and it also creates inefficient meetings and ambiguity in team goals and priorities.
  • Avoidance of accountability: If there is no accountability within an office, then there is no incentive to go above and beyond or meet deadlines. It also puts all the pressure of discipline on the team leader.
  • Inattention to results: If individuals are too focused on their own goals, focus moves away from organization wide results and accomplishments, which limits growth.

Concrete ways to promote a supportive working environment?

Improving communications

  • Transparency and smooth flow of information between offices and departments allows people to feel in-the-loop and consulted. This may contribute to an overall sense of being valued, and understanding between staff particularly when decisions are made.
  • You may wish to make leadership meetings more inclusive, to foster transparency and a culture of active participation among staff members. This also helps leadership staff keep their finger on the pulse regarding the concerns, priorities and vision of their co-workers, volunteers and interns. Distributing the minutes of leadership meetings may also promote staff buy-in to difficult decisions by sharing and democratizing decision-making logic.

Defining responsibilities and encouraging collaboration

  • Clarity on functional areas and procedures are key to ensuring that individuals do not feel unjustly over-burdened and are not left not knowing where to turn for assistance. These are also vital for setting limits and enabling employees to plan a realistic and achievable work-plan.
  • Explicitly promoting collaborative attitudes to e.g. problems-solving or tedious administrative tasks such as letter-stuffing encourages staff to feel comfortable seeking support when they are stuck. It also helps employees understand the difficulties their co-workers experience, fostering empathy.

Mentoring and advice-giving

  • Supervisors should take the time to understand their employees’ personal and professional goals, and if possible share insight, experience and advice regarding the individual’s progression to meet these objectives.
  • Colleagues should provide support for interns’ and volunteers’ future plans, such as goal-setting and discussing study or employment options.
  • Organizations should make their staff profiles available – either on their website or internally – so fields of expertise are known and enable colleagues to consult them when needed.

Designate peer-counselors

  • Few organizations have professional psychologists on hand to attend to staff concerns (whether personal or professional) even if they do work in stressful situations with vulnerable groups. It may be beneficial to establish and train one or two staff members in the basics of supportive listening and peer-counselling. Confidentiality is key to the success of this system.

Flexible working policies

  • Staff are much likely to perform higher and enjoy what they do if their personal needs and time pressures are taken into account. Offering staff time off in lieu of extra hours worked, or allowing work from home will encourage your employees to feel comfortable in their workplace and perform to the best of their ability.
  • Different individuals have different working styles. Flexible policies (allowing work from home or from cafés when appropriate, for example) may nurture your staff in ways best suited to their needs.
  • Clock-watching is detrimental to any working environment. Trusting workers to complete the tasks entrusted to them, rather than requiring presence at a desk for a certain number of hours per day is far more conducive to a friendly, trusting and supportive working environment.

Inclusion and non-discrimination

  • Be watchful for any signs of discrimination or exclusion in your workplace. Cross-cultural differences, such as varying acceptance of LGBTI identities, must be addressed in order for everyone to feel welcome in the workplace.
  • If your office has multiple working languages, ensure that no one is excluded from discussions or meetings: facilitate the use of the language that most people can use.
  • Set aside 3 minutes in your monthly or weekly staff meetings to share personal successes or news.
  • Acknowledge your colleagues’ birthdays and important religious festivals.
  • Refer to ‘partner’ rather than husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend: do not assume everyone is heterosexual.
  • Ensure differently-abled employees’ needs are met, and discuss these arrangements with them regularly to ensure satisfaction.
  • Institute an education-based approach: encourage sharing of cultural differences, festivals, traditions and lifestyles.
  • Respect cultural practices and pursue dispute resolution mechanisms that are sensitive to different styles of people management.

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