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Working in the voluntary sector
Working in the voluntary sector

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1 What is a team?

Photo of a group of people sitting round a table
Figure 1 Working in a team

The terms ‘group’ and ‘team’ are often used interchangeably, so is there really a difference between the two terms and, if so, what is it?

A starting point in exploring this difference is to say that all teams are groups but not all groups are teams. From this, it follows that what is said about groups will apply to teams, but that teams will have special characteristics of their own.

Teams are groups of people working together to achieve a shared goal. This togetherness is a defining feature; unless there is (and needs to be) interaction between members, they are not really a team. A group of people working for a single manager, who never meet or interact in any way, are not a team by this definition. Alternatively, people doing exactly the same job in a call centre dealing with fundraising, with the same individual targets and being overseen by the same supervisor or manager, may be called a team, but would be best described as a working group.

So, when does a group become a team? The example in Box 1 illustrates the difference very simply.

Box 1 Group or team?

A number of people kicking a football about in the car park at lunch time is probably a group. There is little structure to what is happening; it is just a few people acting in whatever role they choose (or possibly several) because they want to get some exercise and/or they like spending time with their friends before going back to work.

However, taking this group and turning it into a football team would be a major task. Unlike the group, the team would have a clearly stated aim: for example, winning as many matches as possible. Ensuring that the team performed this task would involve choosing the right people to perform clearly defined roles according to their abilities and particular skills.

Team training would need to be available to help the individuals work better together. The performance expectations of individuals would be defined by the roles they held. For example, no one expects, except in very unusual circumstances, that the goalkeeper will score goals or that the strikers will defend the goal. When a game is won, the team is seen to have achieved the task, although individuals may still be singled out for praise, or for criticism, as appropriate.

Examples of teams in voluntary organisations could include:

  • volunteers organising a village festival
  • volunteers and trustees writing a grant application for refurbishing a community centre
  • paid staff organising an annual conference
  • staff providing care for children with disabilities in a small after-school club
  • trustees of an animal protection voluntary organisation meeting regularly and liaising by email and phone
  • a team of garden volunteers meeting on the same day every week in a historic garden and working closely with paid staff
  • the senior management team of paid staff in a large registered health research charity.

You probably noticed that these examples include a mix of paid and unpaid staff and a mix of teams meeting regularly. They also include long-term teams, as well as short-term and project-specific teams.

The reason teams are considered important is because people are seen to be more effective when working together towards shared goals. In other words, a group of people can achieve more together than they can individually. The theory behind this is that team members understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and cooperate.

In theory, team working appears to have some benefits: it provides a structure and a means of bringing together people with a suitable mix of skills and knowledge. This encourages the exchange of ideas, creativity, motivation and job satisfaction, and can extend individual roles and learning. In turn, this can improve productivity, quality and focus. It can also encourage employees to be more flexible and can improve the ability of the organisation to respond to fast-changing environments.

However, this does not always happen in practice, but then organisational life is not that straightforward.

As discussed by NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit, teamwork is important in the voluntary sector because organisations:

  • constantly have to adapt to changes in government policy
  • have a culture of participation and democratic forms of decision making
  • need to consider the views of multiple stakeholders and service users
  • attract trustees, employees and volunteers who often have strong and passionate views
  • are particularly vulnerable to resource scarcity.  
(Source: NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit, 2016)

Activity 1 Have you worked in a team?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Thinking about the examples and features of teams mentioned so far, think about whether you have been part of a team. (The team might be at work, a volunteer or community group, or even a sports team.) Write notes on the following questions:

  1. Who is in the team? (For example, paid staff and volunteers, users and carers, and so on.)
  2. Where are they based? (For example, in your office or building, in another building, in another organisation.)
  3. How often do you interact with different team members? (Daily, weekly, monthly, rarely?)
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This reflection activity might have helped you think about some of the issues about teams. Often teams are larger than they first appear: for example virtual teams are becoming common, given the potential savings of not having face-to-face team meetings. So, by the end, you might have moved from thinking about ‘Who is in the team?’ to ‘Am I really in a team?’

You might have started thinking about the different characteristics of a team, such as shared goals, whether you feel a bond with the team and its members, and whether it would be difficult to manage a team of very different people.