Your park group’s governance structure: why the team model might work for you
Are you currently running your park group on your own? Are you just getting your group started and looking for some direction around governance? The team model is a really effective way of working with others on collective goals. How the team model gets applied varies based on the nature of your group and your preferred leadership style. We look at two different park groups to give you a flavour of what the team model might mean for your organization.
It’s no surprise that park groups organize themselves differently from not-for-profit organizations with paid staff. For many volunteers, park work is a “side-hustle” that happens while managing busy work and family responsibilities.
Grassroots Growth, a project from Volunteer Toronto, talks about the various governance models common for smaller organizations like most community park groups. We’re going to cover the team model and address how it’s been applied by two different park groups, differently.
To do this, we spoke with Louise O’Neill, Convenor of Friends of Cedarbrook and Thomson Memorial Park (FCTMP) in Scarborough, Ontario, whose organization recently transitioned from a strong leader model to a leadership team model. We also spoke to Ana Cuciureanu from Toronto’s Friends of Parkway Forest Park (FPFP), an organization that has adopted a hybrid version of the team model that they’re found effective.
By way of definition, a team model means that “all core volunteers work together to make decisions.” Adopting a team model makes sense when your group is small; you are looking for ways to include others in decision making, and working to avoid the burnout that can come with one individual carrying the load as a leader. Your ideas and solutions might turn out to be more creative, and sharing the load can feel good for everyone on the team.
Teaming up to make more things happen
In the early days, Friends of Cedarbrook and Thomson Memorial Park employed a strong leader model. To keep the explanation simple: Louise did everything herself. Eventually, Louise realized that the group could only diversify and grow its presence by involving more people. Also, sharing the leadership role meant building succession planning into her vision for the group. The transition to a team model was made easier by the fact that the group’s events were continually attracting new people who were eager to get more involved. Louis now has a core team of 10 members and a larger group of 60, many of whom help out from time to time.
According to Louise, the most essential roles to fill on a team include those of a treasurer/bookkeeper who manages funds and keeps accounts straight; and of a convenor who sets meetings, administers the membership list, creates agendas and generally keeps things on track. Louise says that a third type of team member could be a marketing person, mostly because they continually attract new people to the group. Each of the team members have specific roles and the team needs to form consensus to make important decisions.
By contrast, Friends of Parkway Forest Park has grown in numbers and has employed the team model from the get-go. So far, the group has been able to successfully function without much formality in the group’s structure. While Ana is technically the group’s figure-head, she doesn't want to be recognized as the group’s ‘leader’ even though she’s happy to be “the glue” that holds the rest of the team together. “I don’t want to be a leader. I want the group to belong to everyone, but I also know that as the Founder, people see me that way. It’s something I try very hard to resist because its not my style and I don't think it's what's best for this particular group."
Ensure teams organize according to interests & abilities
Friends of Cedarbrook and Thomson Memorial Park’s core team members choose the roles they wanted to fulfill. For example, one member is an accountant who offered to do FCTMP’s bookkeeping and keep track of attendance figures. Another member contacts local businesses to solicit donations, while yet another is a professional landscaper spearheads park beautification projects. Louise continues to oversee the group's administrative duties.
FCTMP has other team roles that are program-based including a cycling coordinator, a nature coordinator, and a knitting enthusiast who organizes the group’s participation in Worldwide Knit in Public Day. Each coordinator works autonomously but makes decisions in consultation with the rest of the core group. The group’s structure is relatively fluid, making space for people to join in for specific projects and efforts as needed.
At Parkway Forest, group members also contribute based on their strengths. However, the group’s membership ebbs and flows largely based on volunteers’ availability. Part of the group’s reality is that many of the group’s members have outside commitments and responsibilities. There’s an inherent recognition that people won’t always be available tonpitch in. “We’re all volunteers with full lives that send us in different directions. We just can’t expect that everyone will always be able to participate, so we’ve created a structure that accommodates that.” Having worked on several projects together, the members know each other well and have an intuitive sense of what each can add to roles like grant writing, events, documentation and outreach. Ana recognizes that this approach may not be effective when new members join, but for now, it works.
Set-up team rules of engagement for joining
The members of Friends of Parkway Forest Park have a core group of members that emerged through their partnerships with social service agencies and other volunteer groups. When someone emerges with skills and interests that intersect with the group, the existing group members discuss whether this person should be added to the core group. There’s no distinction between core group members and any other members. They’re very careful about adding new people to the group to protect the group’s dynamics.
Friends of Cedarbrook and Thomson Memorial Park's core members have final say on the direction that FCTMP takes and the activities that it carries out. They base their decisions about core group membership on the principle that if you show up to multiple meetings and come out to a few events, you’re a core member. Otherwise, you’re still welcome at any meeting, but not considered a decision maker. The group adopted this approach to address the challenge of working with people who are primarily interested in leveraging the group to further their own agenda. For example, Louise recalls that one group wanted to organize a musical event and tried to get it organized through Friends of Cedarbrook Park, hoping they could avoid permit and insurance fees. “It made us realize that we need to have people commit to a certain extent,” says Louise. “We need to make sure that they are truly interested in our core mandate of improving the park.”
Build resilience into your team
What happens when a team leader or key member leaves? Both Louise and Ana have given this considerable thought.
For Louise, the team model build resilience and continuity into her group. For example, she's already given a member with an interest in social media the reins in running their accounts. Louise figures that two or three people could split the responsibilities that she now manages. “Still, you need one person dedicated to taking on the role of convenor,” says Louise. “Someone has to hold things together.”
Like Louise, Ana recognizes that she’s a figurehead for the group. However, she feels strongly that an agile approach to her team's leadership will ensure that many people will gain experience in different roles which will help the group remain resilient if she needs to step back for any reason;. “I’m trying to create a lot of mini-mes” she says “so that anyone can step into the lead role on a project and feel confident. We’re definitely getting there as people are gaining experience in different areas."
If you are just getting your parks group off the ground and hope to do more than a couple events a year, think about the team model of governance. It puts control into more hands of more people and helps you accomplish more than going it alone. For more detailed information on this model and others, check out Grassroots Growth's excellent online resources.