Dynamics of Introducing Paid Staff to Transition Initiatives

The Transition Movement in the US – and internationally, too, it seems – is at a stage in its evolution where many of us are thinking about how to grow the capacity and increase the impact of our efforts. One strategy for growing and strengthening Transition Initiatives (those efforts that are building-resilience in communities using the Transition Model) is to develop more formal organizations with paid staff, rather than relying solely on volunteers, which can limit participation and often leads to burn-out.

While many Transitioners believe it is essential to create livelihoods that compensate Transition organizers for the time and energy they put in, at the same time, with Transition’s roots in volunteerism, and an anti-capitalist mentality prevalent among many Transitioners (myself included!), there has historically been some resistance to introducing money and paid staff into local Transition Initiatives.

With this in mind, on July 12, we hosted the third quarterly Transition US national network call to hear from Transition leaders from three different communities – Don Hall from Transition Sarasota, Florida; Sari Steuber from Transition Town Media, Pennsylvania; and Jenny Jones from Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition in Boston, Massachusetts – about their experiences, both positive and negative, bringing in paid staff to their initiatives.  

Here are some of the key takeaways each speaker shared:

Transition Town Media brought on two part-time staff people for two main reasons: 1) some important marketing and administrative functions were being neglected; and 2) to support core team members who needed extra income. The positions were paid $15/hour for 10-15 hours per month, and were funded through a “general fund” that came from donations and timebank membership fees.

Based on TTM’s experience, Sari said she would recommend hiring paid staff to other TIs, but shared some lessons learned:

·         Be sure to have clear agreements and expectations about job description, competency, workload, and compensation (consider an initial “trial period”);

·         Be careful about setting a precedent that certain roles will always be compensated, or creating an expectation that paid staff will do most of the “grunt work” – even if it isn’t part of their job description;

·         Be aware of the added bureaucratic requirements of having paid staff (ex: payroll or filing 1099s), and make sure you have a process in place to handle them.

Transition Sarasota has been called a “social enterprise” by Rob Hopkins. Its founder, Don Hall, saw how much a Transition Initiative could accomplish with paid staff while working with Transition Colorado for two years during and after graduate school, and knew he wanted to devote more than just a few hours a week to Transition once he returned to his hometown, Sarasota. So he took a risk and lived off his savings while launching Transition Sarasota, betting he could raise enough money to keep things running and support himself by the time his savings ran out. Don works hard to keep Transition Sarasota running, working anywhere from 40-80 hours a week offering trainings, workshops, presentations, and events, organizing a local food campaign and gleaning project, and much more. The bulk of Transition Sarasota’s funds come from individual donors and a membership program, trainings, workshops, event fees, and local business sponsorships. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s rewarding, and Don couldn’t imagine making a living any other way. Don advises other TIs who are considering introducing paid staff to make sure you have a strong, committed Board of Directors who will play a significant role in organizational strategy and fundraising.

Don mentioned some of the trade-offs between TIs that are volunteer-run vs those with paid staff: “When an organization is small and volunteer-run, there is a lot of freedom and creativity. Everyone is on equal footing. But to scale-up we need structure, funding, and continuity, and then there are trade-offs: fundraising, communications, personnel. One of the main ways organizations scale and grow is that they start to function as a brand. This puts some restrictions on decisions, adds more care and consideration into the mix. You can’t quite just ‘let it go where it wants to go.’ But it’s worth the extra work and bureaucratic headaches to add structure and become a more formal organization that can make a greater impact.”

Jamaica Plain New Economy Transitionreceived funding from a DC-based non-profit to support its local work and began hosting potlucks and neighborhood events; organizing projects like the Boston Food Forest Coalition and Cancer-Free Economy; and helping catalyze the regional New England Resilience and Transition Network. JPNET started with one paid organizer and expanded to five paid staff at its peak. However, when funding priorities for its partner organization shifted, funding was cut and JPNET had to lay off much of its staff, now operating with one part-time paid organizer. Jenny emphasized two interrelated challenges to this model: 1) Paid staff held much of the responsibility and decision-making power for JPNET, and 2) JPNET prioritized projects for which they could receive grant funding. The combination of these two dynamics meant there wasn’t a lot of community ownership of JPNET once paid staff were laid off.

Following the reports from Sari, Don, and Jenny, we had an open discussion exploring ways to fund paid staff positions which touched on membership models (see Transition Sarasota’s membership model here), timebanks, Transition enterprises, grant funding, and more.

Overall, it was an important and constructive conversation that helped many of us become more grounded in the potential and challenges of creating Transition livelihoods and growing the impact of our work. Here are a few of my own takeaways:

·         Transitioners are hungry to take our work to the next level, increase our impact, and create livelihoods from our work.

·         Before you go ahead and hire paid staff, consider hosting a group dialogue with stakeholders in your TI about the pros, cons, and dynamics of hiring paid staff, including the issues raised above. This will help get everyone on the same page, make the process more open and inclusive, and help troubleshoot potential challenges.

·         Strive to create an organizational or group culture of community ownership, even if you have an active core team or paid staff doing much of the admin work.

·         Develop a diverse set of revenue streams so your TI isn’t solely reliant on grant funding priorities.

To close, here are some words of wisdom from leaders in the community resilience movement:

“While funding for individual projects can often be found, funding for the core of initiatives is much harder to come by. The risk is that groups fall victim to the ‘doughnut effect,’ where all the energy goes into emergent projects and enterprises while the core - which links everything together - goes empty. Providing income for paid staff for core activities can open up incredible opportunities, particularly when it comes to influencing key local decision-makers.”

— Asher Miller & Rob Hopkins, Climate After Growth

"If this is a revolution that depends on being volunteers, I can't be part of it, and nor can most people where I live."

--Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth, speaking at the 2013 Building Resilient Communities Convergence


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