After 20+ years in the third sector, having worked for five employers, maybe you start to feel like you know how things tick, but Engineers Without Borders thoroughly challenged my assumptions about what the sector can achieve.
When I joined Engineers Without Borders in 2011 I wasn't new to the idea that volunteers run organisations in the voluntary sector (!) but I had become used to the idea that most of the critical work is done by staff, with volunteers restricted to roles as trustees, front line delivery (whether face to face with UK beneficiaries or embedded with overseas partners), or in low risk, back office functions. At Engineers Without Borders almost all programme work is planned and carried out by volunteers. Senior staff are a backup to ensure donor commitments and legal requirements are met and to guide and support volunteer leadership in line with a corporate strategy which has a key tenet the need to empower volunteers as leaders, so that they will become leaders in engineering and in development.
This approach has led to phenomenal success for the organisation. Its field work with partners is delivered in a dozen or more countries, it is building long term impact through educating student engineers in twenty universities, it is supporting developing understanding about sustainable development in growing relationships with the corporate sector, and its income is up over £500k (I coordinated its first statutory audit last year). I wouldn't believe the level of engagement with volunteers if I hadn't seen it. Fantastically talented engineers spending 10 hours a week coordinating international programmes, or running a national student network, or coordinating outreach workshops in a hundred schools.
Of course it's an approach that has its challenges, and as CEO I led work with trustees, senior managers and the national executive volunteers to see what we could learn to ensure work is done effectively and promote recruitment and retention of both volunteers and staff. Along with trustees, leading volunteers and senior managers I felt very strongly that the volunteer leadership model that the organisation has developed is the right one to enable it to respond to challenges and opportunities in its next phase of growth.
There might be lessons in this for you as a volunteer or as a leader in a voluntary organisation. I certainly think if you're seeing a volunteer role as a low-risk add-on to the core staffing then you're missing an opportunity to engage talented, value-driven people who can bring passion and creativity to socially driven organisations.
I'll write more in separate articles about engagement with the corporate sector and about my role in leadership (if I'm brave enough). If you have any questions about my experience please feel free to get in touch.