Several times a week now, I’m asked: “How do you work with volunteers? Tell me how to do it.

While I don’t think we have ‘solved’ this challenge at Sustainable Waterloo Region, it’s something that has become somewhat of a competitive advantage for the organization. Without a doubt, we could not have started or had a fraction of the success we have had to-date, had it not been for the leadership of volunteer team members. Today, we’re a group of 7 staff and over 50 volunteers, each of whom contribute with responsibilities that are likely reflective of our current postings at the time you’re reading this.

What does it look like to engage that many volunteers? Well, let me tell you about my day yesterday: I started with a breakfast meeting at Seven Shores, with our HR team. Led by our recently hired HR Manager, Sarah Edmonds, four of us discussed the merits of several potential new hires. We also brainstormed new recruitment channels for positions we’re having a hard time filling, and we continued to refine changes to the team’s orientation process.

By midday, I was part of a meeting led by our Strategic Planning Lead, Victoria Alleyne, as she guided some team members and an SWR Board subcommittee through proposed options for how SWR could apply our strategic approach (collaboration, measurement, celebrating impact) to a new initiative that would increase demand for local, sustainable food options in Waterloo Region.

My work day finished in the early evening, as Rebecca Vollmer, our Finance Manager, finished directing five team members through our monthly strategic finance meeting. Other agenda items included an update on new efforts to educate staff on implications of their decisions on how the organization remits HST, and a new standardized process for quarter-end financials.

Each of these leaders on the Sustainable Waterloo Region team are volunteers.

I’m proud of our volunteer philosophy, which I have described online before (and which recently garnered some third-party validation courtesy of our friends at the Volunteer Action Centre). Recently, Jenn wrote a wonderful post in response to some conversation about our model on Twitter, and James Howe responded on his blog with his take – after personally sitting down with a few of our communications volunteers.

Today I’d like to share a bit more about our approach and tie this back to my theme in this space from the past several months: returning to the challenges we’re facing as SWR continues to grow.

First, how do we do it? While we continue to learn as we go, the answer is both simple & complex: at Sustainable Waterloo Region, we prioritize the needs of the volunteer first.

This concept permeates every aspects of our team culture.

Dating back to when we founded SWR in July 2008, every team member was a volunteer. So, when we received our first start-up funding and began paying staff in March 2009, we were very deliberate about ensuring staff enabled the work of volunteers. And while we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work when engaging volunteers over the years, we’ve stuck to this core idea.

One notable facet of how this concept lives in our daily routines is how rarely we differentiate between volunteers & staff.

For example, I’m often asked if I would connect an interested party to our ‘volunteer coordinator’. I always say no, simply because we don’t have one. And intentionally so: volunteers, like staff, are involved in every aspect of the organization. Expectations are similar for both types of team members. So, our volunteer-led HR team is responsible for, among others things, recruitment, selection and orientation of both volunteers and staff. Sarah leads the team and works full-time on the HR team at Crawford (an RCI member to boot). Similar to how most organizations don’t have a ‘staff coordinator’ or how some of the most sustainable businesses don’t have a ‘sustainability coordinator’, instead all SWR team members in a management role are expected to support volunteers. It’s part of our culture.

What else? All functional area leads (a mix of staff & volunteers) give updates at weekly team meetings. Everyone has the same amount of autonomy (based on function & ability, not whether they get paid), we all have a ‘direct support’ (i.e. someone to support/supervise our work), and we all work from wherever and whenever we are at our best (Victoria, is a great example, as she seems to find her best groove between 3-5am most mornings. To each their own, right?). None of this differs depending on whether you receive a pay cheque at the end of the month.

I often say that if you were to walk into our office today, you wouldn’t know who is a volunteer and who is staff – this is by design.

Of course, by definition, there are differences in how we compensate team members. At Sustainable Waterloo Region, staff are compensated by a mix of financial (albeit poorly, mind you – a topic for a future post, maybe) and non-financial means, whereas volunteers are solely compensated in non-financial means, tailored to their needs and what they are hoping to develop through their volunteer experience. In the recruitment process, we ask ourselves (and the prospective volunteer) to explain why volunteering will be a priority for them, amidst others in their life – and we’ve found that if we’re all clear on how their needs are being met, then sufficient time will be allocated to contribute to the SWR team in a meaningful way.

Our engagement model is not without its challenges.

One big one is the structure of our growing volunteer-led teams. Take our marketing team, for example. This time last year, they were a team of 3. Today there are 7, with one position still vacant. So, as the team has grown, we’ve had to restructure a few times to avoid burning out any one team member. We’ve created a ‘layered support model’ for this team, whereby a new layer of support is focused solely on review, project management and mentorship. While we’re still working out the kinks, the model is one that seems to be working.

Another challenge is the responsiveness that is sometimes required of volunteers, namely those that work with the media, respond to urgent web requests, or are involved in certain HR functions. In these cases, we’ve assigned more staff support for these time-sensitive requests while being respectful of our volunteers’ commitment of 5-8hrs per week.

Last, in terms of recruitment, our niche remains early-career professionals, usually in the 26-34 age bracket. While we have a small number of mid-career professionals, we have no retirees on the team. As a result, I’m cautious about the missed opportunity that this diversity would bring, in particular more career experience, institutional networks across Waterloo Region, and management training. As such, both are groups of potential volunteers we’re keenly interested in bringing on to the team.

As we grow, the way we engage volunteers will continue to evolve. We will continue to re-evaluate how we do things, and always ground changes in feedback from our existing volunteers. But what won’t change is the core philosophy: prioritizing the needs of volunteers first.