Back in February we let you know that things were getting real for the Youth Food Movement Australia. Thanks to some very insightful people, we secured multi-year philanthropic funding to grow YFM, from a mostly volunteer powered collective to an organisation with full time staff.
To be frank, this funding was effing exciting. It was what YFM co-founder Jo and I had been working toward for the previous 4 years of our existence. And you probably read about moments like this all the time. Entrepreneur Jones has brilliant idea. They seek funding. Get backing. Business grows rapidly, with some bumps along the way. Jones is a success.
What you often don’t hear about in articles about Jones’ success (how their passion project morphed from something in their spare time to their day job) are the trade-offs between doing something for the pure love of it, and doing something because you’re paid to be in the office. This is exactly where I’m at and I wanted to share what it has been like, and a few ways we’ve tried to integrate the upsides of being a volunteer into our new day jobs.
The Value of being a Volunteer
A first time for everything
As a volunteer for YFM, I’ve perpetually been in ‘first time’ situations. First time public speaking. First time leading and supporting people. First time writing a grant application. First time speaking to the media. I would not have been able to have these moments in a graduate job. Being “paid” in this way is why I stuck to YFM for such a long time. And the return on investment here is that I was able to use these skills and experiences to secure higher paying jobs outside of YFM (for the last 4 years, I’ve led YFM part-time and worked part time which you can read about here).
A completely invaluable plus of being a volunteer is the creative freedom I could apply to YFM projects. I could dream big about how we could tackle some of the issues facing Australia’s food system. I wasn’t bound necessarily by the need to deliver on the initial vision of an idea. A project, event or campaign could freely morph with the people who joined the team along the way. This isn’t such an easy task in an office where people have pre-defined roles and responsibilities. This creative freedom also gave me a supreme sense of ownership over what I created. It wasn’t on a list of tasks handed to me by my manager. It wasn’t written in my job description.
In short this freedom meant I had a level of comfort taking risks. I needed to take risks because the learning curve was so steep. This approach meant I had to accept things not turning out the way I originally planned. Even when something stuffs up, you learn why, and you move on. Compare this to when something doesn’t go to plan in the office, and the resulting conversations can often centre largely on blame (depending on the culture of your workplace of course, which I’ll get to!)
The Upsides of Turning Your Passion Project into Your Job (apart from getting paid)
There is a level of accountability in a paid position that can easily be dismissed as a volunteer. When this happened with other YFM volunteers, my long held view was that, people have lives and I understand if someone needs to go to a wedding/finish a uni assignment/go to the doctor instead of come to a monthly volunteer meeting. But there is really no reason why you can’t approach accountability (following through on action items, showing up when you said you would) with volunteers as you would with staff. As a project or organisation grows, so does the need for structure and processes, and these breed accountability. At the moment I can see how having a dedicated community manager to set up systems that support and development of our volunteers is a worthwhile investment.
Having established a board of directors to guide the ship, and pull me out of the water when I’m flung overboard is also feature of my job I thoroughly cherish. While sharing the director role with Jo has allowed us both to learn and support one another, that can’t compete with having people around you who have done your job for the last 5 to 40 years between them. It’s like having professional and personal wisdom on tap! This is something that much harder to access as a volunteer, or for something that other people (your advisors, mentors and supporters) see as a hobby.
Longer term partnerships
For the last 3 months, I’ve also enjoyed having the time to explore partnerships with like minded organisations, saying yes to things like being in a social lab or being able to travel to meetings and events in other parts of the country to share YFM’s work and vision. As a volunteer for YFM, I had to be really selective about what I said yes to. Now seeking this work is something I have the time to be proactive about (and if you’re reading this thinking I like YFM’s work and would love to see if we could create something together, please hit me up on LinkedIn or email, I now have the time to meet with you for a coffee!).
Getting the best of both worlds
While there’s no denying the upsides of turning my passion into my profession, at YFM we really wanted to retain what we valued about being volunteers (or at least as much as possible). Here are a few ways we’ve done it in case you want to bring that same passion into your profesh life.
Seeking out diversity
What we do: Having started at YFM as volunteers, it was important to us that the experience continued to be rewarding. We design our volunteers’ experience to build in what they’d like to learn, so they have more fun, and stay around for longer. That’s why it’s common for our volunteers to wear multiple hats (graphic designer, event manager, negotiator). To build this “constant learning” into our jobs, at YFM we developed individual Game Plans for our staff and volunteers that explore both existing strengths and areas we all want to upskill in.
What you can do: Seek out this diversity in your jobs (paid or otherwise), or at the very least, make it clear what other skills you’re willing to develop, not just contribute.
What we do: At YFM we’re always asking how we can take a unique spin on a project or campaign. To do that we tend to start by establishing the big picture objectives when we brainstorm, rather than start with the implementation or delivery format up front.
What you can do: If you’re in a job that is bound by pre-determined KPIs, tasks and outputs, start with the big picture objectives. Dedicate some time to creative brainstorming and ask yourselves if there’s a better way to achieve those objectives beyond pre-determined activities.
What we do: Recognise that doing something innovative and new can be risky – but equally rewarding too. At YFM we’ve developed a culture of treating risks as opportunities to innovate, and learn fast when things don’t go as we expected.
What you can do: If you spot an opportunity to innovate, talk to your manager about it and make sure you’re both ok with learning being the primary outcome.
Image credits (top to bottom): Anna Kučera, Zo Zhou, Nicholas Siafakas.