A number of articles and research studies have been published on building high-performing teams in the workplace. Are the principles the same when money is removed as a motivator? How do you build a high-performing team of unpaid volunteers?

Since 2007, Endeavour Volunteer Consulting for Non-Profits (Endeavour) has been providing pro bono management consulting services to help non-profits and charities improve their organizational capacity and social impact. Clients benefit by gaining access to expertise that would normally be beyond a non-profit’s budget. Volunteers benefit by getting the opportunity to give back to their community in a way where their skills can be leveraged.

Every year, Endeavour operates two rounds of six-month long consulting engagements with approximately four to six project teams of seven skilled volunteers who are likely meeting each other for the first time. During the six months, volunteers need to quickly build effective working relationships to successfully complete their assigned pro-bono consulting project for a non-profit client.

As an organization with a continuous improvement mindset, we regularly solicit feedback and improvement ideas from our volunteers, and measure the outcomes and impact of each client engagement. Building and assembling high performing teams is of prime importance to Endeavour’s mandate and a contributing factor to the impact we have on the community-at-large.

Over the last decade, I have served as the co-founder and VP of talent and strategy at Endeavour, observing and analyzing what makes our volunteer teams thrive. Below are four key things I learned.


Embrace diversity

Many of our volunteers told us that the diversity of their teams was a key benefit of their Endeavour experience. At Endeavour, we purposely form teams that are diverse in nature (e.g. education, work experience, cultural background) to ensure that volunteers can learn from each other and that different perspectives are considered when developing recommendations. From our experience, this results in recommendations that are more thoughtful, with wider breadth, and higher potential for success. It also helps us better serve our diverse range of non-profit clients and their beneficiaries as heterogeneous teams can contribute more creative ideas and solutions to difficult problems.


Align goals and set expectations

In a recent 2016 survey of past Endeavour consultants, aligning project goals and setting clear roles and expectations at the very beginning of the engagement was cited frequently as a strategy to promote team performance. One specific activity that past consultants found particularly useful was the discussion, development, and documentation of a project charter. Items up for discussion and inclusion in the charter include: meeting protocols, communication mediums and frequencies, decision making frameworks, conflict resolution procedures, and team member skills and roles.

Of particular importance is determining what skills and experiences each member brings to the team, what each person is looking to gain out of the volunteering experience, and aligning work tasks and functions to ensure that it matches both project and individual needs.


Foster psychological safety

In Google’s quest to build the perfect team , psychological safety was discovered to be the most important dynamic of effective teams. Psychological safety is where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. This also applies to team environments in the volunteer setting. High performing teams at Endeavour were comprised of individuals that facilitated respectful discussion and debate, where each team member’s voice was heard, and constructive criticism was welcomed. Teams also put in the effort to get to know each other personally by having team socials or sharing information from their personal lives at the beginning of the consulting engagement.


Provide meaningful projects that match volunteers’ skills and interests

Skills-based volunteers are looking to donate their time to a meaningful cause. Since inception, our volunteers have contributed more than $7,000,000 in consulting services – the amount our clients could have expected to pay if they could afford to hire a consultant. Endeavour considers our volunteers’ time to be precious and make every attempt to not only ensure their time yields the greatest impact, but also that they work on projects that they themselves have a personal attachment to.

As such, Endeavour carefully selects clients to determine their fit with Endeavour’s mission and expertise, and look for those that can most likely benefit from Endeavour’s approach to thereby increase their societal impact. Volunteers are matched to projects based on both their skill sets and preferences. Endeavour engagements are very time-intensive for our volunteers and making every effort to match them with a topic they are interested in makes the volunteer’s experience that much more fulfilling. We regularly measure our Volunteer Net Promoter Score, a widely adopted “customer” experience and loyalty metric, to ensure that our programming is meeting our volunteers’ needs.


Building high-performing teams is as much about the preparatory upfront activities of team formation and goal setting, as it is about fostering psychological safety throughout the project. Volunteers are invaluable to organizations and efforts need to be made to help them be as effective as possible.


Ada Tsang is Co-Founder and Vice-President of Talent and Strategy at Endeavour Volunteer Consulting for Nonprofit and a 2016/17 Fellow in the AFP Inclusion and Philanthropy Fellowship program. She has over 10 years of experience working in the fields of non-profit, healthcare, and management consulting. Ada is currently working to improve care for frail seniors in Ontario at the Regional Geriatric Program of Toronto, and serves as a member of the Board of Directors at Four Villages Community Health Centre in Toronto. You can follow Ada on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adatsangTO.

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