Episode #073: Vital Lessons for Nonprofit Leaders from Women’s World Cup

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host Tobi Johnson, and if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity cause, membership or movement, I made this podcast just for you.

Welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation. I am your host Tobi Johnson, and I have been having so much fun watching Women’s World Cup. It’s just been a joy. I’ve been a longtime soccer player, not lately, I retired a few years ago, but I’ve been playing soccer since I was about twelve years old and so I have a huge passion for the sport. I am an avid Premier League football fan.

It’s often during Premier League season you’ll hear soccer on the TVs, around the house. We’ll be following soccer. I love Women’s World Cup, I love watching Men’s World Cup as well. I love watching our Olympics. When we’re having our Olympics, our teams play in those tournaments. So it’s just something we really love to do around here and it offers me a lot of sort of stress reduction. I find myself really relaxing and enjoying the game. Having played it for so many years, I really can respect and understand the absolute elite skill that these athletes have developed throughout their know.

This morning I was watching the England and Australia game and there’s probably no spoiler alert here because by the time you’re listening to this, you already know who won the World Cup. If you’re a soccer fan and following, I love both. You know, it was a bittersweet win, I think, for England. But I felt sad for my colleagues down under because just such an amazing job they did. Both pulling off both. They in New Zealand, pulling off such a great tournament, but also just their fan base. And the hard work those ladies did to take them almost to the end, all the way to the semifinals. So it is a testament to women’s sports all around.

But when I was watching, I started thinking about the ways that this World Cup really has evolved over the years and really started thinking about all the leadership tips and lessons that we as nonprofit leaders might learn from. These types of tournaments and the way that these young women comport themselves and the hard work they do to get to where they are, but also just the way that they’ve pulled together. And so it kind of inspired me to do a podcast about it. So I’m going to talk today about vital lessons for nonprofit leaders from Women’s World Cup. So I’m totally indulging my fandom here. If you’re not a soccer fan, there’s still value here for you, so don’t go anywhere. So I’ve been talking about my top tips for nonprofit leaders. You can check out episode 22 where I talk about my fave six nonprofit leadership and management wins, where I really talk about my own personal experience as a leader.

You can check out Volunteer Nation Episode 17, where I talk about my top twelve nonprofit leadership tips that I’ve learned the hard way. So I’ve shared a little bit of my own experience over the years, and I’ll post these in the show notes. But today I want to talk about other places I find inspiration for my own leadership and might inspire you as nonprofit leaders. In this case, we’re going to talk about what elite athletes do when they’re at the top of their game and when they have a sport that needs to be advocated for. That didn’t start with rave reviews, didn’t start with universal appeal, but through the years of constant advocacy and really holding themselves to high standards, women who play soccer at this level are a testament to leadership. And so it’s going to be some fun. Just today, we’re just talking about geeking out a little bit over soccer. So let’s start with just kind of my thoughts about as I watched this year’s tournament, I was really struck by how much the sport has evolved over the years and how far women’s soccer has come.

Regardless of whether or not you watch soccer or the team you support or how you might be disappointed by the results of your team in this tournament, there is no doubt that there was a tremendous amount of grit, focus and community pulling together that has leveled up this sport to the level it’s at today. I can tell you that when we watch Premier League men’s and we watch the Women’s World Cup, the level of skill and technique is almost equal. Now, men have stronger bodies in some respects, but the women are as adept with all their skills that it takes to really win and also as aggressive. So soccer is for those of you who don’t know soccer very well, it is a contact sport. And we don’t wear pads except in our shins. We wear shin guards. That’s it. So it really has evolved and it made me proud, because when you’re part of a sport that has grown from an infancy, a little baby sport all the way to the world stage like this, where billions of people are watching around the world, that is something to be proud of.

And I think all women who have been involved, women and girls who’ve been involved in soccer over the years can see this tournament and take some pride in it because we feel like we’re part of this community. We’re not the elite athletes on the pitch, but we are people who have participated and are part of a community of women who love soccer, women and girls. So it’s a very proud moment to see how far the skill set has come. It’s just so exciting to see. Some of these goals are amazing. Many of the saves are amazing. It’s just amazing. Overall, just to see the skill set grow.

And it’s just this year in particular, there was such a, I don’t know, it just seemed like an exponential leap. So, as I said, this offers sporting events sometimes offer us nonprofit leaders. We nonprofit leaders. Some takeaways that could inspire our own management approaches. So I’m going to share some of my top key takeaways. I find inspiration all over the place. I’ll look at things, I’ll say, oh, you know, that’s interesting. So today I’m going to share some of my musings.

So here’s the first one, first piece of inspiration for nonprofit leaders and takeaways sort of key lessons, vital takeaways. So here’s a lesson. With effort, progress happens. That’s it. With effort, progress happens. When I started playing soccer, I started playing soccer at age twelve, and the girls on my team had been playing already for about six years. They started playing maybe first grade and elementary school, and I started in junior high. And at that time, there was no women’s world cup.

There were no professional leagues for women to play soccer. There, in fact, was no girls soccer teams in our high school network of high schools in our city. And our area was very soccer, pro soccer, because we had a community soccer club. I grew up in the pacific Northwest, where soccer was big. We had a whole soccer association in our neighborhood. And at the college level at that time, there were really only soccer for women. There were only soccer. Mostly.

I would not say only, but mostly soccer. You know, we got together when I played soccer at Washington State University for a few years. It was a soccer club. And so we paid for our own cleats, we paid for our own uniforms. We went around in a tiny van around the Pacific Northwest playing soccer. It was not like a collegiate, it was just a club. And we had a lot of fun doing it, but we weren’t well supported. But things have changed.

Now people get scholarships to college for soccer. We have pro leagues around the world, not only in the US. But around the world women’s professional leagues. Most high schools have a girls soccer team, and the world cup is now watched by billions of people around the world. It’s pretty, you know, for nonprofit leaders, the lesson here is really that you never know what the future holds, but you need to move forward with faith in a better future. You may not see it in your lifetime sometimes, but change does happen, and with effort, progress happens. So when I started soccer again, my fellow players have been playing for six years or more. So I started at the bottom of the heap.

I wasn’t very good, but I loved it. And so I ended up keep trying, keep coming back, keep going over and over and over again. And in the end, I ended up playing on my college team for a few years and developed into a passionate, fan lifetime. So we don’t know what the future is going to hold. And so all we know is that with effort, progress happens. And so sometimes that’s what we have to hold on to as nonprofit leaders, because our work is hard, and sometimes we cannot see what the end is going to look like. Nobody predicts the future. All we know is we just need to keep moving in the right direction.

So I think that’s a great lesson from women’s soccer, another lesson that I think is really helpful for nonprofit leaders from the world cup that came to mind when I was watching the world cup this morning. Allyship is important. So the fact is, you never know who’s going to support you or who supports you that you haven’t even heard from. If you look around the stands during world cup, people from all genders, all backgrounds, et cetera, support the game. It’s not just a bunch of women in the stands supporting women on the field. There’s allyship galore going on around women’s soccer. In fact, in Australia, the Australian football, which is different than US. Football and different than soccer, Australian rules, they moved a game, and this is a huge sport in huge national sport in Australia, and they moved a game just so that folks could spend and focus their attention on the women’s world cup game.

So it’s been that kind of allyship is so know, when I was in high school playing soccer, or when I started playing soccer in high school, we didn’t have a boys team. And so as young and in high school, I think this was my freshman, actually, junior year, I think it was junior year, because there was no women’s team or no girls team, I decided to play on the boys team. And so I joined and played on the JV boys soccer team. And at that time, they didn’t have any girls teams, and I played because I wanted to play. And the people that I knew, friends of mine that were guys on the team I had played in pickup games with up at our local field on the weekends. They were friends of mine and they didn’t care that I was a girl and playing with them. In fact, they often would remark that they respected me for how hard I worked and if anybody else gave me any problems from the other teams, they would stick up for me. Hey, leave her alone.

So you never know. And the story is always the girl plays the boys sports and gets harassed. That was not my experience at all. In fact, I became a better soccer player because I played with boys. I learned how to play a more aggressive game. I really challenged myself to stretch. And I wasn’t the best soccer player. I was a mediocre soccer player.

But playing on the boys team made me a better soccer player. And it took some guts, but I loved the game so much, I just wanted to play. And so I did. And the unlikely thing that happened, or maybe it is likely, I don’t know which way you look at it. The following year, they added girls soccer across our city at every high school. And so the next year, I played on the girls team. Right now, I had no idea there were two of us, me and another woman who played on the at the time when we played with the boys, she played on the varsity team. She’s a lot better player than me.

But we had no idea that the next year, and she was a senior, so she didn’t see the girls team get formed the following year. But we had no idea that that was going to happen. But sometimes the actions of people just doing what they love and not allowing people to block them from doing what they love has unintended consequences or things we don’t even imagine will happen. And so the next year, hundreds of girls across all of our high schools got to enjoy and play and participate in soccer games. So that was pretty cool. So allyship is important. It’s important that my fellow players on my boys team embraced me as a fellow player, as a person that was of equal status on the team. If that wouldn’t have happened, I might have quit, and then maybe we wouldn’t have the girls teams the next year.

I mean, sooner or later we would have, obviously. So that allyship is important. And in women’s world cup, there’s so many allies that support this sport now. And they’re there because they love the sport. They’re there because they respect the women on the field. And that’s pretty awesome. I’m not saying double standards still don’t exist. Certainly, pay equity was a big struggle for the women’s national team of the US.

But people make inroads to things and get a seat at the table by sticking together. And I think that’s what women’s soccer really demonstrates for nonprofit leaders. We also need to recognize that we’re a bigger part of a network that needs advocacy and allyship across the sector, because not always are we embraced as a sector. We think we’re doing good in the world, but there are people out there that like to demonize the nonprofit sector for whatever reason, I don’t know. But we need to stick together. And we will find those unlikely allies that love what we do, including our volunteers. Our volunteers in our community, our donors, our supporters, our partners. Those are all the people that are championing what we do.

And we should be very grateful for that. So that allyship and allyship across the board, from nonprofit to nonprofit. Nonprofits can be kind of turfy sometimes, let’s be honest. So we need to make sure we set those things aside, because we all are part of a single sector that should be moving together and supporting one another. So allyship, it’s important. Great nonprofit leadership lesson. Another lesson for nonprofit leaders from World Cup. Sportsmanship is powerful.

Sportsmanship is powerful. So being good sports and supporting one another is really important, especially at this stage on a world stage where the world is watching and at the competitive level, even at the competitive level, with everything on the line. For these women who have worked and dreamed their whole lives, you would see women helping each other. Know, if someone they crashed into one another, they would reach out a hand and help each other up. They would console each other during the Australia and England game today. At the end of the game, folks were consoling one another. The team that lost, the team that won was consoling. The team that lost, they’re also kept it positive for the most part.

There were a little bit of drama here and there, and people say things when they’re upset and full of energy from at the end of a game. But for the most part, people are positive about their fellow teammates as well as other teams in the tournament. And part of the reason for that is, I think many or if not most people in women’s soccer understand that they are still advocating for sort of sport as a whole, right? So this solidarity is important. To grow the enterprise of women’s soccer, it’s absolutely essential to have solidarity. Being broken apart, not being able to be supportive of one another, only breaks down the sport. The sport is what suffers, and thus then the teams suffer. And so there’s a tremendous amount of solidarity across the board. For the most part.

I’d say there’s a few bits of drama here and there, but this type of sportsmanship absolutely inspires also a whole new generation of future athletes. If you can imagine, there are little girls right now watching world cup. There’ll be little girls watching this weekend. Now, this will air after the final, but during the final this weekend, there’ll be little girls around the world, and some of those little girls will play in that final later on in their lives. I’m getting a little teary. It’s so weird. Anyway, so we are, as nonprofit leaders, we should take our level of leadership seriously, because our actions today are inspiring the next generation of volunteer, of nonprofit leaders. And if you think about, for example, the students who are coming through your nonprofit as service learning students, for example, or internships, those are our future nonprofit leaders.

And some of those people, whether they’re national service students or participants or members, I should say service learning students, interns, all of the young people that are coming through and working with your nonprofit and offering their time and talent, some of those people will become. And many of you, if you’re a leader of volunteers, you may have come up through national service, you may have come up as a volunteer, but we are inspiring the next generation. So we need to take our leadership seriously and be good sports inside our organizations, inside our nonprofits. In the end, our actions today will inspire the future nonprofits, future nonprofit leaders to take up the mantle of community based work. So we are always advocating and we are always leading, whether we realize people are watching or not. So it’s just really important. Sportsmanship is powerful. That’s a key lesson, I think.

All right, let’s take a quick break from my discussion of vital lessons for nonprofit leaders from women’s world cup. Don’t go anywhere. I’ve got some more lessons to share, and I promise I will not get teary. All right? Or maybe I will, I don’t know. If you enjoyed this week’s episode of volunteer nation, we invite you to check out the volunteer pro premium membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated, high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer pro premium membership helps you build or renovate an effective what’s working now volunteer program with less stress and more joy so that you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. It is the only implementation of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the volunteer strategy success path.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit join. Okay, we’re back with a discussion of my vital lessons for nonprofit leaders from women’s world cup. I get to geek out on my favorite game. It is the beautiful game. We learn so much from sport, and this is the sport that I have learned so much from in my lifetime. So I am sharing some more key lessons that I think we can take away from this wonderful sport. So another lesson for nonprofit leaders. Technology helps you improve.

Now you’re probably thinking, sport soccer, where’s the technology? Oh, believe me, there’s technology going on. If you haven’t noticed. You may have noticed, like, a little bump on the back between the shoulder blades of the players underneath their jerseys. They’re wearing a heart rate monitor. They’re wearing like, a vest that has a heart rate monitor and GPS tracking. And their trainers are collecting data on where people go on the field, what distance they run, what their heart rate, how high it gets, low it gets, et cetera. And they’re able to determine distance run, they’re able to determine fitness, speed, et cetera. There’s just a lot that they’re hooked up that information beams to computers and they can analyze even during the game.

So they can make tactical decisions with those data. And so there is technology used in soccer and women’s soccer, as well as other men’s soccer. So technology really has helped the sport improve. With having these data, they can start to see is their training program, is their fitness program working? There’s also technology used in training and that’s also helped and even the low technology of just the gym. Back in the day when we played soccer, we didn’t do any gym workout. We just went out on the field, ran our drills and did some scrimmaging and ran and got our fitness in shape. We didn’t stretched, we didn’t go to the gym, we didn’t lift weights, we didn’t do squats, we didn’t do any of that, we didn’t do any flexibility training. And that’s all different nowadays.

There’s a lot of technology behind that. So technology really does help you improve if you’re gathering data and reflecting on it. So nonprofit leaders need data to track how their programs are doing and whether or not they’re meeting their goals. This helps us monitor and make adjustments. And so I know sometimes technology can be frustrating, but the data, if we use it to collect data, can be so helpful to meeting our missions more effectively. So big lesson from Women’s World Cup. Here’s another one. I’ve got two more to share with you.

One is that preparation and focus are essential, essential at the elite level, if your organization wants to really compete at the elite level. And what I mean by that is meeting your mission at the most effective level possible. We need to prepare both our bodies and our minds and our systems. When it comes to, even in soccer, there are systems of defense and offense that the coaches are using and shifting during games. Even so, we have our own systems in nonprofits where we’re creating systems to address certain problems or reach certain goals. So really, to compete at the highest levels, athletes prepare their bodies and minds. They also don’t coach themselves. So there’s a good reason why soccer teams, or any other sports teams for that matter, don’t coach themselves.

All teams need coaching and strategy. So that’s part of the preparation and focus as well is having a decent guide, somebody who knows what they’re doing, who can see the team objectively, can offer wisdom, can offer strategy and guidance. Similarly, nonprofit leaders need to prepare for their work and build the skills needed to reach greater heights. So coaching, as with athletics, may make the difference between succeeding and failing, because you often need a guide to show you the way. Even coaches need a coach. I have my own business coach. I’m also part of a mastermind where I work with and interface with other entrepreneurs. And I learn so much from other people that I can bring back to my followers, my members, my students, my community, and help them grow as well.

And so I take my job as a guide, a trainer, a consultant, a coach, seriously. So I’m constantly building up my own skills as well. And so you can’t do this on your own because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so you really do need a coach to help you guide the way and sometimes get there faster. So preparation and focus is essential. It’s also super essential to have a guide so that’s a lesson learned. And the best coaches bring about the best in their teams. And we can see that with some of these top teams in the Women’s World Cup.

Okay, my final lesson for nonprofit leaders from Women’s World Cup is that team Spirit is the special sauce. Team Spirit is a special know, at the top tier, everyone is skilled. When you get to this elite level in Women’s World Cup, you are not on one of these teams. Even if you’re sitting on the bench and you’re a substitute, you are not there unless you are highly, highly, highly skilled. It’s very hard to compete at this level. And to get there, people have to have a certain level of skill set. So skill set, individual skill set, is not always or not ever really the thing that makes champions. A video on your team needs to be at a certain level.

It’s a basic requirement, but it’s not what helps people win the championship. The teams that win the championships are teams that are very cohesive cohesion. Team cohesion is a differentiator between winners and losers. It just is at this elite level, teams of the best cohesion are able to read one another’s movements and work together rather than as an individual. You’ll never see a team win just because there’s one ballhog using their super skills and dribbling around everybody and scoring goals all on their own without any help from anybody else. That’s just not how it works. Teams that are really cohesive can practically read each other’s minds and teams that have a lot of synergy, they all are working together, whether folks are a substitute, whether they’re a starter, whether they get subbed out, whether they get subbed in. Everybody’s there for one purpose and one purpose only, and that purpose is to win.

So they will do whatever they need to do as a team to support each other to win. And that’s the special sauce we hear. If you’ve heard any interviews with World Cup winners on the US team ever, they’ll talk about this, about how it is the thing, it’s the know, the other thing that Team Spirit, which is interesting, is people develop team spirit around the team that they are on at the moment. So many players in Women’s World Cup are also on pro leagues and some of them know people from different countries will know they’ll be playing against their teammate who’s on another team with them in a pro league.

But during the World Cup tournament, they are focused on the team that they’re on and so they are there for the team that they’re on and so they stay focused on the job at hand, which is helping this particular team win. So that’s what happens at an elite level. I think nonprofit leaders need to understand that organizational culture can either hinder or help team performance, and they need to take bold steps to ensure that everybody on the team is having a positive experience. Everybody knows what the goal is, and no pun intended.

No pun intended. Maybe pun intended a little bit. I’m sorry. Everybody needs to know the goal. The goal is a goal, right? And the leadership, it is your job to create the environment for this to happen. Certainly, team players, the team captain, they have a part to play in building the team culture, but it is the coach who leads. The coach who leads. They set the tone.

And so it’s important to have a great leader as well as team members who are willing to carry the ball. Ha. Did you see how I did that again? Okay. Anyway, if you want to learn more about building healthy workplace culture, if you haven’t yet listened to episode 53 of the Volunteer Nation podcast, check it out. It’s about promoting a healthy workplace culture for volunteers with Marianne Chance, and it’s a good one as well. If you’re struggling with building the right culture, that’s a great episode to listen to. But really, this lesson is all about team spirit. Team spirit is the differentiator.

It is the special sauce that separates good and great, and so it’s something to pay attention to. All right, well, those are my vital lessons for nonprofit leaders from Women’s World Cup. I hope you enjoyed them. If you’re not a soccer fan, thank you for bearing with me. If you’re a soccer fan, you are probably geeking out, right? Because you get this already, right? But absolutely. So proud of all the women that played in this tournament. It’s such a proud moment to see how much our sport has evolved over the years. I mean, when I was playing soccer years and years, decades ago, things were different.

And it’s so great to see all this opportunity open up for women to step on the pitch and show the absolute best of themselves both in the skill as a soccer player but also in their skill and compassion for each other as teammates and each other as teams that are all involved in this enterprise called women’s soccer. So hats off to all of them. It’s been a fantastic World Cup. I can’t wait till this weekend. And again, this will probably air after the final, I have no idea. England versus Spain? Who knows? Wishing them both well, and I’ll be back next week. So thank you for joining me this week. As always, I appreciate you as listeners, each and every one of you, and if you liked us, share us and also rate and review.

That helps us get in the eyeballs or in front of the eyeballs of more people, and we can keep these ideas spreading further and further. So thanks for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation, and we will see you next time, same time, same place on the Volunteer. Nation podcast. See you later, everybody. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe rate and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.