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A Sharp and Veery Steep Learning Curve - Surviving the Early Years of Icelandic Roots

By Rob Olason



While it seemed to Sunna Furstenau that launching Icelandic Roots took a great effort and years to achieve, her real task was just starting now that the non-profit was up and operating.


She of course knew that the heart and soul of Icelandic Roots was the database that would need to be maintained and refined. Several genealogists had agreed to help.


Check.


All other aspects of operating an ongoing organization would need to be identified and attended to. In the meantime, she would start out by doing all these tasks herself and see how it went.


Check.


Check?


Well, after the first few years of trying to single-handedly manage the administrative tasks of the organization, Sunna had to admit she just might need some more help. In fact, like any small business operator, she realized the job could never be completed by just one person. Even if that person put in over eighty hours a week, working seven days a week in the attempt.


A year after launch, she was working with a new member, Dave Jonasson, helping him work out how to research and include more information in the database. Within a few days, Dave, who had spent his career in IT, became the newest Icelandic Roots Volunteer charged with fixing IT issues within the database that the professionals Sunna had hired were not able to fix.


In 2016, Sunna mentioned to Dave how hard it was to manage the organization because she was spending so much of her time answering the hundreds of emails landing in her inbox each day. Dave said he could create a shared email inbox that the genealogists could all take turns monitoring. He suggested that this modification could streamline email management.


As promised, this one change had a profound impact on the workflow of the organization. Instead of Sunna being the sole “gatekeeper,” she and all the other genealogists could take shifts monitoring the “support” email box. Productivity increased, members got their emails answered faster and the database grew quickly as a result.


Sunna now had one free hour per week. She began to imagine what she could do with that one hour.


Since 2012 she had also been writing informational posts in her “spare time.” She thought “Maybe I could work on improving the Icelandic Roots blog, now that I seem to have some time.”


She did just that.


The volume of work continued to grow as more people learned about Icelandic Roots. Another new member, Doug Hanson, who was interested in incorporating new mapping opportunities with the database, offered to help with the financial accounting of the organization. Sunna thought, “What a relief!” as she gladly turned over that task to Doug’s very capable management, and he became another new Icelandic Roots Volunteer.


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Over time the number of volunteers slowly grew, bringing their unique skills to help solve IT, financial, and membership support tasks as well as expanding what the database could offer.


Sunna was amazed at the volume and quality of work this community of volunteers was producing. She also found that despite all the activity that swirled around her, she was still spending vast amounts of time trying to manage it all. Pouring more time than ever into the organization, she felt she was no longer doing her best work. She even wondered if her contributions were less of a help and more of a hindrance to the growing enterprise.


The Rogue Wave



In February 2020 Sunna and Jeff traveled to the Caribbean adding one vacation day to Jeff’s quick work trip to the area. That day proved life-changing.


While swimming in the ocean, Sunna was slammed into the sea floor by a rogue wave, leaving her, as she later recalled, “with my body broken.” To fully recover, she had to spend three months nearly immobile, to not impede the healing. She worried about how she could possibly take the time she needed to heal while also keeping Icelandic Roots running.


Prior to her accident, her approach had always been to throw herself into even the tiniest details of the organization. That would no longer be possible during her recovery. She realized she had only one choice and it would involve a huge request.


To keep Icelandic Roots running during her recovery, Sunna asked a small group of volunteers if they could each take an aspect of the management tasks she had been doing and make it their own area of responsibility. They agreed, and while she recovered from her injuries, this new organizational approach not only kept Icelandic Roots running but began a transformation in how the organization would operate going forward.


This experiment born of necessity after the February 2020 accident evolved into the new “Team” organizational structure launched in September 2020. All the volunteer workload was eventually organized under a nine-member Leadership Team. Each team leader would then organize and direct their team’s work. This new approach spread the decision-making process throughout the pool of volunteers.

Icelandic Roots Organizational Chart May 2023
Icelandic Roots Organizational Chart May 2023

Sunna discovered that not micro-managing all activities at Icelandic Roots was liberating and she regained her positive outlook. She also gained some more free time which caused her to begin dreaming about other activities she would like to pursue.

The leadership team grew more adept and comfortable in their new roles and the number of volunteers grew.


As the community of volunteers developed, the activity of Icelandic Roots exploded.

New volunteers brought new ideas and as the organization’s leader, Sunna decided her management practice would be limited to this phrase: “Go ahead with your idea. It’s yours, so you are in charge.”


That led to a lot of new offerings for the community: a regular conversation hour with Samtal; a book discussion opportunity with the Icelandic Roots Book Club; the bi-weekly Rætur Fréttir/Roots News and the Samkoma Members News; the monthly database users “help desk,” Members Helping Members; in addition to periodic special members' events in-person or online, webinars and publications.


Building Community


In the early years of the organization, the genealogy team would have online meetings to discuss their work, share their challenges and offer possible solutions. These gatherings were an opportunity to build community within this group whose members were scattered across the North American continent and Iceland.


Sunna recounted that the late George Freeman cherished these gatherings and at every meeting, he would say “I’m so glad that I have you all as my friends. I’m glad that I can come here and tell you about my day. And I’m especially glad to be a part of something bigger than myself, that I can contribute to.”


George’s thoughts about the community found at Icelandic Roots is common among the volunteers and the members. Many volunteers, now retired from busy careers, relish the opportunity to engage in activities that are important to them by contributing to a mission that is important to so many other people.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the online community of Icelandic Roots provided a valuable social opportunity as people socially isolated to help reduce the spread of the virus. While they could instead gather online and converse, they also gained learning opportunities as programming was offered on Icelandic history, culture, and heritage, not just limited to Icelandic genealogy. That additional opportunity for community was why Icelandic Roots created the Samkoma membership in 2023. A Samkoma member can participate in all the online community offerings, leaving the database exploration to the database members.


Giving Back


One aspect of Icelandic Roots mission from day one has been awarding funding to Icelandic heritage groups and scholarships to participants of language programs and the Snorri cultural exchange program.

Graph of Icelandic Roots Annual Grants and Scholarships through 2022
Graph of Icelandic Roots Annual Grants and Scholarships through 2022

This giving component of the organization is on track to surpass the $150,000 mark for the first decade of operations. This program is a vital component of Icelandic Roots’ commitment to providing support of Icelandic heritage and is funded through membership fees and donations to Icelandic Roots.





Going Forth


A bedrock function of Icelandic Roots is connecting Western Icelanders to Iceland, its people, its heritage, and its land. A keystone activity during the tenth anniversary of Icelandic Roots is organizing an Icelandic Roots volunteer journey to Iceland in September 2023. The volunteers have paid all their own expenses, but Icelandic Roots has funded the plaques and landscape improvements where the markers will be placed in the emigration ports to honor the ancestors who emigrated and those who remained behind in Iceland.


Next time: Volunteers return from Iceland and share tales of their journey.


Other Articles in this series:


Part I:


Part II:

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