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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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!


7 thoughts on “To Pay or Not to Pay? Probably both.

  1. Jason says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jenn. To answer your question, no, I certainly don’t think SWR is an anomaly, as I’m seeing an increasing number of non-profits that do a great job of managing a group of volunteers that can produce some professional work with the right guidance and leadership. I certainly think there are occasions when paid services may be appropriate, but that volunteers and unpaid talent can often be valuable untapped resources as well.

  2. Victoria says:

    My position would be pretty much paid by now if I had a dollar for every time someone told me “Come on, it’s volunteer work…you don’t actually have to be doing any of it!” One of the main reasons Sustainable Waterloo Region functions well with so many volunteers is that we are given such a high level of responsibility that we really can’t conceive of doing anything other than what we would (or beyond) for a paid job.

    I think it may be hard for some organizations to give that level of trust, but as a not-for-profit it kind of began out of necessity.

    Another reason it works is because there’s a general culture of excellence – we see the great work everyone else is doing, and want to do a good job to make sure their hard work isn’t wasted.

    Having lots of volunteers doing miscellaneous roles in the company keeps things interesting. And while it may be a bit more complicated to manage, it also means we are having a much broader impact on the community than if everything was done by a small group of full-time staff.

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  4. Colleen says:

    Love this, Jenn! The answer IS both. Clearly. And it is critical to engage volunteers with an expectation of excellence. Which means every person cannot fill every volunteer role. That goes against standard thinking, and it is hard for some people to comprehend.

    At Vantage Point we think excellence in volunteer engagement is not only about the Sustainable Waterloo Region – and rather about the effectiveness and sustainability of many NGO’s in North America.

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