Thoughts on the role of the Engagement Team within the Foundation

Adopting a Service Mindset {Anagram: Tom’s decade revising a pint}

At my last job I played a project manager-like role for the in-house web development team of a nonprofit organization. The web development team was really more of a software company in that they were creating feature-rich, highly interactive products for a variety of end user clients; those products just happened to be on the web. Our work was served by other teams: the customer support team, the marketing team, the operations team, and more.

It has been interesting to move from the world of product development to a functional area where much of what we do is provide support and services to program teams.

The support and services that the Engagement Team provides run the gamut from fundraising and partnership strategy, to grants pipeline management, to external communications and campaign strategy, to production services (read: the graphic design, web development, and copywriting services of Studio MoFo).

I realize that the Engagement Team might not be seen (by its own members or by others) in this way—as a team that supports other teams. After all, we lead our own initiatives and we tell a meta-story of the Foundation that is more than the sum-total of the individual programs. But it has been a helpful framing device for me as I learn the terrain here, and I don’t think it would be a bad thing to be seen this way. I think it would be a very, very good thing.

I’m learning about some of the challenges that are unique to providing support for program teams.

  1. In some cases, the main challenge might be simple visibility—making sure that people know your services are available to them. I’m of the belief that no amount of well-crafted wiki pages or etherpads will provide that visibility unless those things are placed in front of people at the moment they need them. Who remembers to look at wiki pages and etherpads that aren’t already a part of their regular workflow? (Okay, probably some people do, but not everyone, and besides, it’s a maintenance nightmare and it becomes less effective over time as staff members come and go.)
  2. Another challenge is helping people understand how your services can fulfill one of their perceived needs. There are two parts to that thought—first, they have to believe they have a need, and second, they have to believe your service will fill it. For some services, this is a no-brainer. “I can help you fund your project”—the need is clear, as is the connection to the service. Done and done. With other services (for example, external communications), the need may not be top of mind for program staff who are heads down and in the weeds of their program work.
  3. Another challenge is scaling. How do we support all of the great work that’s going on? I’ve heard members of the engagement team talk about their desire to provide training to other staff and community members. This kind of expertise sharing would increase capacity across the board. Total win.

Servant Leadership {Anagram: Parental dervishes}

Here are some principles I’d like to adhere to as we figure out how to best support the work of our fellow MoFos, while at the same time leading the way in the areas where we have expert-level knowledge:

  • Meet people where they are. In some cases, we can expect people to come to us with support requests, but in general, we should be meeting people where they are. We should attend their meetings and check in on their project plans in order to identify the areas where we can apply the knowledge and experience for which we were hired.
  • Become experts at surfacing obstacles to people’s work. I could write an entire blog series about the challenge of surfacing obstacles. (Note to self: write an entire blog series about the challenge of surfacing obstacles). We are only helpful if we are solving real problems for people, so we have to know what the real problems are.
  • Tell our own story. We know the value of what we do; we need to figure out how to share that with others. And really, we should be showing, not sharing.

Curious to know what others think.