Small Staff Can Mean Big Challenges, Bigger Opportunities
Running a youth shelter always requires a leap of faith, but never more so than for organizations with miniscule staffs. Just ask Deb Loon, interim executive director of Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis, MN.
Avenues has only five full-time staff members, so when budget cuts eliminated one position entirely and left another open for several months, Loon and her staff had to make do with less. Like so many solutions to small-staffing problems, the eventual answer wasn’t ideal, but it worked: the part-time coordinator of Avenues’ host home program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth began working full-time, taking over responsibility for the transitional housing program as well.
Whether an organization is forced to downsize or chooses to stay lean, working with a small staff can be challenging: employees are required to wear many hats, their time can be stretched thin, and tensions can rise. But, handled properly, those same challenges also offer their share of rewards.
“Staff are empowered and inspired by the opportunity to take on new responsibilities,” Loon says.
Born2Win Ministries, a host home program for runaway and homeless youth in Greenville, NC, gets along well with only 10 full-time staff, says the program’s clinical director Debra Cannon. “Yes, all staff performs multiple duties, but we operate as a team who complement and assist each other so that the most effective job is accomplished,” Cannon says.
Maximize your outreach. Networking and collaborating can enable a small organization to have the impact of a larger one. “We consider it very important to help the entire community, to establish team work and wraparound services to provide a more thorough service to each individual child,” says Cannon. To that end, Born2Win has placed staff members on local boards, giving them leadership opportunities and helpful contacts with community leaders.
Identify your staff’s hidden talents. For example, one Avenues for Homeless Youth staff member happens to have 30 years of experience with bookkeeping and finance. In addition to managing one of their facilities, this employee orders supplies for the house, attends to human resources, and coordinates payroll and finances. “Every staff person plays a variety of roles in the house to meet the youths’ needs,” says Loon, which means capitalizing on abilities outside official job descriptions.
Hire conscientiously. While the sense of pride and community at tightly-knit organizations can be its own reward—Cannon says her group has only had to replace two vacated staff positions in the last six years—it’s nevertheless very important to make sure new colleagues are 100 percent committed to your program’s mission. When the time came to replace the two open positions, Cannon says she and her colleagues looked for people “who understood how our program operated and were willing to work hard at the tasks required of them in an expedient manner. Staff for small places must be people who are dedicated to the cause of the program, and able to take their responsibility to the project very seriously.”
Commit to staff-wide growth. A successful small organization knows how to grow together, and Deb Loon makes sure her colleagues enjoy at least one communal training session each month, with an emphasis on the particular population they serve, homeless youth in Minneapolis between 15 and 21 years old. Previous sessions include boundaries and ethics, informed care, de-escalation and mental health—topics that not only prepare each staff member for daily duties, but also help build a foundation of shared knowledge within the organization.