Commentary: Charity, with a Glass of Wine

At the Door County Community Foundation, we recently learned some really interesting things about each other. One of our board members wrote a musical. A member of our professional staff used to dress up as Clifford the Big Red Dog at public events for PBS. The husband of a board member wrote the definitive history of U.S. Senator Philip Hart, for whom the Hart Senate Office Building is named. A member of our team even learned that the “scary” board member is actually “really funny” and a “nice person.”

These are just a few of the things we learned about each other when we and our spouses gathered outside the office to spend some time together as colleagues, volunteers and friends. Gather a group of people who share a common mission, add a few glasses of wine, mix in a couple of plates of hors d’oeuvres and suddenly you find yourself enjoying each other in a whole new and refreshing way.

According to the respected nonprofit governance experts at BoardSource, the leadership of a charity is two and a half times more likely to work as a collaborative team when it deliberately creates social opportunities. In corporations across America, there are many examples of exercises and activities that companies use to build stronger teams, yet too often team building is seen as a wasteful expense in the nonprofit world. A common criticism is that we should be spending our money on our charitable mission, not on an evening of wine and cheese for our nonprofit board and professional staff.

Private companies, however, invest enormous amounts of time and money to build stronger interpersonal bonds among their people precisely because this investment delivers business value to the organization. A strong team fosters good communication and better problem-solving. It encourages camaraderie, which is essential for a motivated workplace. It leads to more satisfied employees, which promotes better customer relations and lower employee turnover. In essence, a strong team creates a synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Businesses invest in socializing and team-building activities precisely because they’re good for business.

As important as team building is in the for-profit world, it’s arguably even more important for the charities of our community for one simple reason: Private companies don’t need volunteers to get their work done.

At a for-profit business, employees tend to interact with each other on a frequent, if not daily basis. Although companies still choose to invest in team-building activities to foster strong interpersonal relations, those bonds are reinforced organically through the daily interactions among co-workers.

At a charity, those regular interactions can be more rare. Even the most involved volunteers might interact with each other and the professional staff only a few times a month. Some boards of directors, like that of the Community Foundation, meet as a whole only four times a year. If we are not deliberate in building vibrant interpersonal bonds among the volunteer board and professional staff, they might never develop at all.

Further, although building a strong sense of teamwork at a charity has all of the same benefits that you’d find in a for-profit business, there is the added benefit to nonprofits of increased volunteer retention. At a corporation, everyone is paid to be there. A charity’s professional staff is obviously paid as well, but by definition, its volunteers are not. If volunteer board members do not find their service experience rewarding or do not appreciate their time spent with colleagues, they will likely resign before their work is truly done.

A board member who reports a strong sense of teamwork among colleagues and the professional staff is almost four times more likely to fully serve out the board term.

BoardSource notes that social opportunities are a critical ingredient in a charity’s organizational culture and overall board satisfaction. Being intentional about creating strong interpersonal bonds makes a real difference in how the board functions, how it interacts with the professional staff and organizational effectiveness as a whole, yet fewer than half of charities report investing in social activities that promote a sense of teamwork.

So gather together your board, professional staff and their spouses and partners over a glass of wine and some hors d’oeuvres. If don’t know how, invite me, and I’ll gladly show you how to have a nice time with your friends and colleagues – especially if it’s a good glass of wine.

Bret Bicoy is the president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Email him at [email protected].