Volunteer Reminder: There Is No “I” In “Team,” but There Is In “Win”


There was a story floating around years ago about Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and his approach to basketball stardom. According to the story, an assistant coach approached a young Michael Jordan and said, “You know, Michael, there is no ‘i’ in ‘team.’” Jordan was tying his shoe and barely even acknowledged the coach when he dropped an epic response: “But there is in ‘win.’”

He’s right. When superstars are allowed to be superstars, organizations win.

Nearly everybody is an expert at something, but opportunities to demonstrate that expertise aren’t always available. People have been conditioned to refrain from “tooting their horn.” People are not supposed to walk the halls with their resumé on a signboard. While humility is usually a good thing, it can also cripple an organization, especially organizations that rely on volunteers. It’s important to give people the opportunity to say, “I’m good at that.”

Complete a skills inventory the minute a volunteer shows up.

In my experience, smaller companies are typically better at this than larger ones. They must be. Stratified businesses, with layers upon layers of business process centers, aren’t structured to identify skills and apply them. Smaller organizations require people to wear more hats, they need people to raise their hands. A good skills inventory, one that allows people to check boxes, identify experiences and share backgrounds, is vital for any organization.

This one stings a little for me, based on something that happened last month: I’m a volunteer Little League coach who, before a bunch of shoulder surgeries, was also a pitching prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball organization. Another volunteer coach who had never played baseball at any level was teaching the boys how to pitch. Incorrectly. No one knew what my background was until we got to the parking lot after practice and I said, “I used to do that.” Now I coach pitchers.

Immediately enter the completed skills inventory in a searchable database.

The business world has gotten pretty good at gathering data — but they remain pretty bad at making it usable. Building a searchable database is not the hardest thing to do. Assessmenet checkboxes can easily become searchable tags, little bits of information databases use to locate things. With a searchable database, you’ve got virtual teams at your fingertips. Really good ones. Facing a tough negotiation with a municipality? There might be a legislative expert handing out T-shirts at your fundraiser. That volunteer who sprays out kennels? Maybe she has an MBA from Wharton and spent the last twenty years negotiating deals in the procurement department at a blue chip. Without a skills inventory and a good searchable database, you’d never know. You could literally be standing in the middle of an all-star team and not know it.

Let an expert own it.

Assuming you’ve done the skills inventory of your volunteers, created a searchable database and identified a volunteer with a special skillset, you have perhaps the most important job left: Let them do their thing. “You don’t get a dog and then bark for it,” an old saying goes. Same thing with resident experts: Let them lead, let them demonstrate the skills they made careers out of. Give volunteers a seat at the table and listen to them.

A shelter I’ve done a lot of work with did this a few years back, when a number of volunteers from Ford Motor Company showed up on their doorstep. They wanted to walk dogs, spend time with cats, help with adoptions. Typical volunteer activities. A few months in, a pair of the recently retired volunteers overheard a conversation about the shelter’s database and segmentation efforts. That’s when the shelter staff found out this pair was responsible for Ford’s database and consumer segmentation. Complicated stuff they happened to do for one of the largest companies on Earth. On another occasion, I was at a shelter to negotiate a sponsorship contract for a manufacturer and sat across the table from a volunteer who had been in charge of procurement at a Fortune 500 company. She stole my lunch money.

Mobilizing your volunteers to increase effectiveness is not always a “quantity” game — it’s really a “quality” one. Winning that game starts with knowing who you have on your team.

Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.

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