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A Leadership Case Study: Santa & His Elves

December 20, 2013

santa hat
by Becky Lunders, teamWorks
This is the time of year when I get lots of questions from my kids about Santa and his elves and how in the world they make all those toys and get them into the hands of children around the world. My eight-year-old asked me the other day if Santa has Elf Leaders who oversee the other elves. That got me thinking… Santa and his elves are a great example of leadership! Santa has built an infrastructure to support his operation, allowing him to get the job done without burning out. He’s got the workers and the leaders and together they create magic, just like the volunteer leadership model I preach. And it really does works, as indicated in the case study below.

A group of volunteers in Jacksonville, Florida came together and orchestrated an event that exceeded everyone’s expectations. Their Santa is a guy named Lee, a very passionate, committed volunteer. He believes in the vision and put together some Elf Leaders to handle different parts of the project. They pulled in worker elves to take care of all the details to get the job done. Everyone did their part and the result was magnificent! DogFest Jacksonville raised more than $61,000 this first year, while recruiting volunteers and raising awareness at the same time.

Canine Companions for Independence adopted this volunteer-driven, staff-supported model and launched DogFest this fall. DogFest is the signature national event of Canine Companions. It raises money to pair highly-trained assistance dogs with special people and in the process, changes lives. They have lots of dedicated volunteers across the country, but not a lot of staff. Thus, it is essential for the event to be volunteer-driven. A Chairperson oversees a committee of volunteer leaders, who then puts together their sub-committee to accomplish all the little tasks. With this model, the organization can build capacity without burning out key volunteers or staff. Speaking of staff…

Another accomplishment for this event is Mrs. Claus (a.k.a. Cathy, the Staff Partner). She recruited the right man for the job (Santa) and then let him run with it! She supported the effort from afar (she had to – she doesn’t live in the area)! She managed the volunteer committee remotely by serving as a resource, coach and cheerleader. Her clear and ongoing communication made it possible for her to know what was happening, and it allowed the volunteers working on DogFest to feel supported. Instead of running around doing everything, she was able to recognize the efforts of her team every step of the way. This might call for a round of milk and cookies in celebration!

As we head into the holidays, think about your role as staff in working with volunteers. Do you try to do everything? Or are you okay delegating projects, events and programs to leadership volunteers? Consider doing that with just one project. It’s the key to building organizational capacity. You’ll be amazed what people will do if you just let go and let them! Here’s to a jolly holiday season!

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