I was following a conversation on Twitter a couple of weeks ago between passionate Waterloo Region advocates, James Howe and Jason Shim. A discussion had sparked about whether an organization could rely on pro bono work and volunteers to drive their communications strategy, or whether consistent, quality communications are best left to paid professionals. Paid professionals play a valuable role in nonprofits given their expertise, time commitment and the implied longevity that exists with a paid role. But, I think that Sustainable Waterloo Region demonstrates that with strong mechanisms in place, communications strategies can also be successfully executed by volunteer teams.
At Sustainable Waterloo Region, our communications-related functional areas are completely volunteer-led. This includes both Marketing (which encompasses a Marketing Manager, a team of Communications Specialists and Graphic Designers) and Public Relations (which includes a PR Manager [this could be you!], Media Relations Lead, Community Relations Lead [that’s me!], and a team of PR Generalists). As a collective, these two teams drive everything from messaging, to media relations, to brand development and continuity, social media, speaking engagements and more.
To understand why volunteer-led communications work for us, I think it’s important to dispel a few myths as they relate to our volunteer model:
- Volunteers aren’t professionals – On the contrary! One of our goals is to continuously strike a balance with our team between those early in their career looking to gain experience and those who are established professionals in their field. In terms of our communications, volunteers like Deb and Kelly have worked in their respective fields for decades and as such, can provide the leadership and mentorship sought by some of our younger volunteers. The key to retaining these highly skilled professionals is our commitment to mutual benefit. No matter how much these volunteers give to the organization, we ensure that they are rewarded with achievements of their own goals – be it opportunities to gain leadership experience, more responsibility than they currently have in their paid job, or a chance to reconnect with the tactical components of the field that they love and which seniority in their day job no longer allows for.
- Volunteers should be held to a lower standard than paid staff –I mean, they’re selflessly giving their time, right? Not the case at SWR. Our mantra is to never differentiate staff from volunteers. We have ambitious goals as a young organization and to achieve them requires the dedication of the whole team. As such, volunteers work within aggressive timelines and high expectations, just like paid staff. How do we get away with it? I think much of it comes from our volunteer recruitment strategy. During volunteer interviews (yep, we interview for volunteer roles!), we place a strong emphasis on uncovering the passions of potential volunteers. Once we can hone and harness those passions, we can build projects around them to ensure our team is excited by their work eager to get started. The organization also has a clear vision and we make a point of sharing in each other’s successes. When volunteers see how their work contributes to the bigger picture, we feel empowered to make it happen.
- Volunteering is too short-term to ensure consistency – Team members like Matthew, Sean, Miles, Lisa, Victoria and myself have been with the organization almost since the beginning, and many others having been on the team for over a year. For an organization that isn’t quite 4 years old, I’d say that’s pretty good. Why do people stay around? A few reasons. Aside from the value SWR provides in terms of networking and experience, at SWR, it’s personal. On Tuesday evenings, we cram 30+ staff and volunteers into the office for our team meeting, where the goal is not only for everyone to keep their finger on the pulse of the organization but also to keep up that face time with one another. I’m sure many readers will know that last month we held our annual Evening of Recognition where we celebrate the achievements of Regional Carbon Initiative members and the organization as a whole. Although I wasn’t able to attend the event in person, the team made a point of all signing a card to let me know how much I was missed. A few weeks later, the card and a number of other SWR goodies appeared in my mailbox. I couldn’t have been more excited. What does this prove? We’re more than a team of colleagues. We’re friends.
With this being said, there’s absolutely a time and a place for paid communications work in nonprofits. For instance, last summer we undertook a name change and brand revamp. I was fortunate enough to lead this rebrand through a short-term paid position thanks to a grant from Service Canada. This project was a big undertaking that I don’t think would have been as successful or effective if it didn’t have full-time paid resources committed to it. But, with that being said, my team, comprised of communications specialists, graphic designers, PR pros, Web & IT coordinators and more, remained volunteers. And what we were able to achieve during my time as paid staff is sound groundwork that made it possible for a smooth handoff that would see brand continuity and maintenance once again the domain of volunteers.
What do you think? Are we the anomaly? Or can communications work be both the domain of unpaid talent, as well as that of those that charge for services? I’m excited to hear from you!