One consistent challenge in any organization is maintaining a trained, motivated and collaborative staff and volunteer environment. We tend to form our staff and volunteers into groups with the best skills for a particular task—say, working with the public, handling animals or performing medical procedures. These groups work together performing similar tasks and ideally become highly functioning and supportive teams. This is good when it leads to higher skill sets and greater efficiency, and not so good when different teams grow apart from each other, do not understand the role of the other, develop an ‘us vs. them’ attitude or create a unseen weakness in the system. For example, if a flu outbreak had all of your medical technicians out for 5 days, would your organization come to a screeching halt? A simple and effective way to diminish this effect, develop a more collaborative work environment and strengthen your organization in general is to incorporate staff and volunteer cross-training into the everyday pattern of work. Getting started is easier than you think, and the key is—get started. Here are a few things to consider as you begin:
First—Don’t wait, don’t think about it for 6 months, decide right now and start by cross-training the very next new staff and volunteers right away. Choose a logical skill-by-skill or department-by-department pattern. Once the pattern is developed, begin cycling current staff and volunteers through the system. Using trainer and trainee feedback, continue to tune and develop the most productive patterns. Don’t forget to track who has learned what and to what proficiency. Remember, not everyone will be highly skilled at everything—and that is OK.
Second—If cross-training is a journey, then it is a never-ending one. A few hours a week, a shift, a day once a month… choose the intervals and lengths that work for you and keep it going. Once someone has finished a rotation, they should start again so that skills and relationships can be developed and maintained.
Third—Unsurprisingly, some of your staff and volunteers will be better at training folks than others. Look for ways to acknowledge those staff who are good trainers, mentors and supporters of others. Let it become part of your organization’s culture that training, mentoring and being a team player is valued, respected and rewarded.
Fourth—Cross-training is not just for frontline staff. Everyone in the organization will benefit from some deeper knowledge of what happens at the organization and how. Development staff will be better able to understand and describe the organization’s work to donors, EDs will truly know how things get done and board members can often become reenergized and reconnected to the mission with a little targeted volunteering.
So now that you have developed a strong cross-training system, don’t forget to continue the process. Tune the pattern and timing as needed, talk about cross-training skills during employee reviews—and remember, rotations should be ever recycling so that skills and relationships are maintained.
Congratulations! Without breaking the budget, you have taken the first steps to develop a system that will help build a collaborative team environment, strengthen your organization’s ability to react to changing needs and provide staff development all in one step.
ASPCA Senior Director, Community Outreach
At the ASPCA since 2009, Dave Betournay has more than 25 years of animal welfare experience, including 12 years at the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire. He currently works with ASPCA Partnerships and Initiatives in Charlotte, NC, Miami, FL, and throughout the northeast.
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