Help Desk FAQ: Making the Leap from All-Volunteer to (gulp!) Paid Staff

Staff + Volunteer Teams,

This guest post is part of MANP’s ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition.

Consider this scenario to see if it sounds familiar:

You and some other volunteers identified a need and formed a nonprofit organization to meet it. What started small has gotten bigger. There is enthusiasm for what you are offering, and the need is still there, but the demand for your services seems to be outstripping your ability to fill it. You can imagine growing bigger, but you don’t think you can do it as an all-volunteer organization.

Whether from enthusiasm about the potential or exhaustion from the work so far, it is likely that you’ve asked, “Is it time for us to hire someone to help us?”

The key to answering this question and determining how to move forward will depend greatly upon the amount of momentum the organization has achieved. If the number of people you serve is lagging and you are struggling to find volunteers and financial supporters, it may not be the time to hire staff. Hiring because you are exhausted or because you are short on volunteers or because you are short on funds could well add to your concerns.

However, if you are finding that demand for your services exceeds your ability to meet it and you are enjoying solid volunteer and philanthropic support, you just may have the momentum you need to move to the next stage of organizational development and hire a staff-person to help shoulder the load. But first, gather the board, and ask yourselves these questions:

Do you need to grow?

Do you and your board have a “growth orientation?” There are many organizations that find they are “right sized” and best-suited to continue as an all-volunteer organization. It is definitely worth considering together, “Are we comfortable with our current scope and scale?”

Do you have the financial capacity required?

Even a part-time employee will bring substantial ongoing expenses. Do you have predictable income from ongoing donor support or other revenue generation that you’ll need to cover the expenses of an employee year after year? Take the time to develop budget projections that look out at least three years. Can you reasonably project that you’ll have the essential revenue required to hire and sustain an employee for at least three years? Maybe that means adjusting the role from full-time to part-time, but attempting to hire with the message, “We are counting on you to raise the money to cover your salary” is a recipe for disaster.

What’s the need you are trying to fill?

What is the role and what are the responsibilities you need your new hire to fill? It’s easy to come up with an “everything but the kitchen sink” job description, but it’s best to focus on what is most important. For example, you may identify finance support as the priority need. In that case, do you need to hire an employee or could the need be met through an independent contractor? Take time to prioritize and consider your options.

Could you meet your needs through a “strategic partnership”?

Is there another nonprofit with sufficient capacity and a compatible mission that could help meet your need? Strategic partnerships take many different shapes, including contracting for specific services, and there may be a potential partner nearby that can support your growth and success.

Is there sufficient board commitment?

Is the board ready to assume responsibility for managing your new hire? Beyond the work involved in preparing for and making the hire, keep in mind the ongoing direction, support and evaluation required, not to mention the legal and human resource realities of employing staff. The board’s role will likely evolve as the organization moves into a new phase of its “lifecycle” and the board will also need to reflect on and revisit the lines around governance and management if and when paid staff take on more day-to-day operations.

Will you be attractive to a potential employee?

Before you move forward with hiring staff, take a good look at your board and at the health of the organization. If you were in the job market, would you take the job if offered? What kinds of issues do you need to address or resolve before you hire? Is it time to consider a board assessment and do the governance work necessary to be the kind of board your ideal employee would want to work for and with?

Ideally, your first hire should help take your organization to the next level, but the wrong hire at the wrong time can become a tremendous liability. Take time to ask yourselves the questions presented here and consider them seriously with your board. Maybe now is not the right time to make that hire, but it may be the perfect time to start positioning the organization to be able to do so at some point down the road. Keep asking yourselves these questions and you’ll know when it is the right time.

About the Authors

Starboard Leadership Consulting provides nonprofit governance and strategy support and offers executive search services (at a discount to MANP members).

Mary Aselton Budd,

Mary BuddMary joined Starboard Leadership Consulting as its managing director in 2018. Mary’s practice includes executive search, strategic planning, leadership training, and executive coaching for clients invested in continuous improvement. Previously, Mary spent seven years at the helm of Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor as board president and then executive director and worked as an independent consultant focused in the education reform space. Mary began her career as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington and later worked for Massachusetts Governor William Weld. She served for five years on the City of Bangor Commission on Cultural Development (two as chair), and was previously elected to the Bangor School Committee.

Jeff Wahlstrom
, Founder and Senior Counsel

Jeff WahlstromJeff has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance practices, leadership succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff  developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.