Fractional volunteer leadership: a new model for nonprofits?

“How did you grow so fast?!”

It’s a question I’m hearing over and over again, and it’s a good one. Being a part of Lasagna Love has been kind of like being on a rocket ship, but you’re building a lot of the components while also being launched at warp speed into the unknown. Very exciting, but also somewhat hectic.

Truly though, how did we grow so fast? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this lately, wondering if there’s anything we’ve done that could be shared with others who are looking to scale their impact. I do think much of our growth was result of a perfect storm: an accessible idea combined with a time when our country desperately needed that idea. But that only explains one side of the equation, which is why so many people have joined the movement. It doesn’t really answer the question of how. On that front, I realize there’s something that Lasagna Love has come to do exceptionally well.

I’m going to call it fractional volunteer leadership.

We’ve seen it becoming more and more popular in the private sector. Small and medium-sized businesses are hiring “fractional” c-suite executives like a Chief Financial Officer or Chief Marketing Officer; someone who is able to contribute their expertise on a contract basis. In this way, a small business can afford the insight of a high-level executive, without having to pay a prohibitively expensive annual salary for a position they really only need for a few hours a week. In turn, this model empowers small business owners to focus on what they’re good at – the core business – instead of trying to learn how to do everything themselves. (Being a small business owner who’s tried to do it all myself, I personally know the kind of power this model can have!)

How the fractional model can impact nonprofits

Historically, nonprofit volunteers have been the on-the-ground force. We chop carrots in soup kitchens, we paint walls and hammer nails as part of Habitat, we help out in classrooms or maybe teach a workshop or two. Volunteers are a critical part of the nonprofit landscape; enabling organizations greater programmatic reach than if those positions had to be paid.

But there’s an interesting limiting factor to nonprofits that I’m becoming intimately familiar with – funders like to fund programs. They like to know that their dollars are going to pay for the carrots and the paint and the nails. They’re often less keen on funding the core operations of the organization. The challenge is that these core operations are just as critical to make sure that programming can happen. The consequence is that often, nonprofits are struggling to pay meaningful wages, offer benefits, or hire the staff they need. So much time is spent looking for and applying for funding that doesn’t come with a huge set of restrictions, instead of doing the actual work of running the organization and delivering services. Want to launch a rocket ship? You can’t just buy the parts and hire astronauts, you also need people running ground control. We didn’t have the luxury of time or fundraising experience, and so we had to find another way to keep up with the pace of growth.

A volunteer team that looks like an executive-level org chart

At Lasagna Love, I started asking for help when things started to heat up. And the help I needed was at a more senior level – I needed leaders like myself who could take on parts of the organization. It emerged very organically; first a handful of people who excelled operationally and interpersonally to take on leading different areas of the country as we grew. They’re now our volunteer Regional Director team. Then some people who were really good at communications.  They’re now our volunteer support team. Marketing and partnerships experience? We have a volunteer business development team. Software development? Help us build, stabilize, test, and improve our volunteer portal. Great with data and impact measurement? We have a volunteer Evaluations Director. These are people giving their top skills – what they’re paid to do in the private sector – and donating those skills to Lasagna Love. And they’re not just task-oriented volunteers; they’re leading teams, helping to make strategic decisions, and very much shaping the future of the organization.

What this means is that Lasagna Love has the expertise and capacity of a much larger, more established, more well-funded nonprofit, and we’re able to keep up our pace of growth to meet the demand of both volunteers and recipient families. For sure: we still need a core team of paid staff. There are still day-to-day operations that require 40-hour (or if I’m being completely honest, more) commitment from someone, or that need a skill set we aren’t able to find in our volunteer community. But we’re able to make those choices very strategically.

Empowerment has impact at all levels

If this organization was still just me trying to manage everything on my own – we wouldn’t be here today. If I had to hire for every one of these positions, all of my time would be spent asking for funding instead of actually doing the things that need doing. That’s not to say this will work for every nonprofit – I think it depends on the structure, the culture, the leadership, and so many other factors. For Lasagna Love, one of our core values is empowerment, and it evolved from my desire to empower individuals to ask for help. (Heck, I’ve had to empower myself to ask for help over and over!) But that value of empowerment has spread throughout the organization in so many other ways, including this one. We’re empowering our volunteers to take ownership and leadership of their organization. It may not work for every organization, but it fits perfectly with our culture and structure. (Side note: can I please get an enormous, collective THANK YOU; YOU’RE AMAZING to our volunteer team? Because we genuinely wouldn’t be here without them.)

I’m sure we’re not the first to use this model, though I wonder if we’re one of the first to do it at this speed and scale. We have over 250 volunteer leaders across the country: 200 local community leaders, and another 50 that comprise our national leadership team. For organizations that are faced with fast growth, this is one way to ensure that you can keep pace. Just like with making and delivering lasagnas: people genuinely want to help in any way they can. If I’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that you just need to ask.

Rhiannon Menn is the founder of Lasagna Love and Good to Mama. She writes about the power of kindness, mindset, and how to cultivate change in ourselves and the world around us. You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.