LCO Pro: Making the Leap to Paid Staff

Categories: LCO 101

A local climbing organization’s (LCO) work to keep climbing areas open and stewarded takes time and resources—including a supportive community, an army of volunteers, and money. Although there’s a strong and deep tradition of volunteerism in the climbing advocacy community, fundraising and volunteer burnout are serious challenges to keeping an LCO going. More and more LCOs are asking themselves whether it’s time to “go pro,” but many struggle with why, when, and how to take the leap.

In this installment of the LCO Pro series, we dig into those questions and hear directly from LCO professionals on the pros and cons of volunteers versus paid staff, as well as some of the key criteria for moving to paid positions.

Mike Reardon

Executive Director, Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC)

WHY: The advantage of paid staff is that the wheels never stop turning. The impact we’ve been able to have at CCC and the partnerships we’ve built in the last year would have been nearly impossible without a full-time person dedicated to the cause. Volunteers can be expected to do only so much, and if that volunteer has a job or children or other responsibilities, burnout can happen quickly. Building relationships and securing climbing access are both a long-range game that can take years to see results. Having someone dedicated for the long term is key to reaching those long-range goals. The disadvantage is that it takes more organizational support.

WHEN: First, ask your community and members if this is something they want. Be sure to have a committed board of directors who are all bought into the idea of hiring an executive director. Have two years’ worth of salary in the bank to provide a nice cushion. Have your organizational ducks in a row with projected budgets for incoming years, proven fundraising plans, and a clearly outlined role for the position. Go full-time, and find someone who is career-oriented and deeply embedded in your community.

HOW: We have had several business donors that support the executive director position, as well as some grant funding for project-specific work.

Lauren Heerschap

Former Executive Director, Central Wyoming Climbers’ Alliance

WHY: One advantage of having paid staff is that you have someone committed to prioritizing and carrying out the tasks the board sets forth. Successful fundraising, grant writing, and event planning/execution are difficult for volunteers to do alone, especially if those needs or events scale up in size and scope. Even volunteers with the best intentions won’t be able to prioritize or carry out tasks like paid staff can, and staff add a level of organization that is difficult with only volunteers. An obvious disadvantage is that too much is often placed on the plate(s) of staff, and turnover may become rather high due to burnout. For financial reasons, many LCOs choose to work with one or more part-time staff, but this can be problematic. Livable wages are hard to come by through part-time work, so these staffers will probably combine their role with the LCO with other work. The juggling becomes tough and can lead to burnout if the board and community aren’t willing to support staff through volunteer assistance, good organization, and realistic expectations.

WHEN: This decision definitely requires a certain level of financial stability and sustainability in order to pay staff. It’s helpful to have a strong track record with several years of successful fundraising, a solid community of support, and an effective board of directors in place before even considering hiring paid staff. Although a large part of the executive director’s job is fundraising, you don’t want to have someone step into a void of nothingness and ask them to start from scratch—unless that’s the only way you can get your LCO off and running. Annual events such as climbing festivals, competitions, film festivals, or other gatherings are an important and often reliable source of revenue for an LCO and a fun way to create connections within your community. I think it’s most effective to have your ED also be the main coordinator for your major events to provide a consistent face for the organization, so you want to hire someone who enjoys wearing a lot of different hats. A board of directors should expect to be an active, working board that’s willing to provide a lot of volunteer hours to make programs possible that are simply impossible for one person to pull off alone.

HOW: My position is funded through donations (25%), grants (18%), fundraising events and merchandise (8%), Climbers’ Festival sponsorships (42%), and Climbers’ Festival ticket sales (7%).

Andrea Hassler

Executive Director, Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC)

WHY: The advantage of a paid staffer is having one dedicated point person to keep up with all of the volunteers, partners, and projects. At SCC, we still rely heavily on volunteer support for events and stewardship projects, but our full-time staff pull most of the weight of organizing, coordinating, and managing it all. One disadvantage is that some folks assume we don’t need volunteers because we have paid staff, which is often not the case, because our operations are so varied and far-reaching. Personally, I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I can’t do it all alone!

WHEN: It really depends on what your LCO is trying to do. I was on the board of one LCO that considered hiring someone to lead stewardship projects, but we ended up deciding against it because of the limited availability of projects and funding. SCC started with a part-time staffer in 2013 before hiring a full-time executive director five years ago. Our territory is so large and includes dozens of public and private climbing areas, so all of those relationships, stewardship projects, and access issues would be a significant challenge to manage with only a volunteer board.

HOW: My position is funded through several streams of revenue that support the LCO, including fundraising events (56%), individual donations (20%), memberships (18%), and grants (6%).

Kate Beezley

Executive Director, Boulder Climbing Community (BCC)

WHY: Having paid staff means you can set concrete goals that have an expectation of being met. Paid staff can harness and organize the power of your volunteers. Even though we have paid staff at BCC, we still have thousands of volunteer hours annually. We would not be able to harness the power of this many volunteers without staff. Make sure you outline clear goals for the position. A paid executive director was critical to BCC, because we were running a paid trail crew and needed someone to oversee operations and grant writing, and to fundraise for our other programs: bolts, wag bags, eagle monitoring, and advocacy. To have a successful hire, you want to have some clear things like this that you want to achieve.

WHEN: BCC decided to hire a part-time executive director in 2018, when our founding, volunteer executive director was ready to step down. The organization was at a critical growth point, and we did some targeted fundraising to support the position. Part of the timing decision included time for the new executive director to shadow and work with the outgoing executive director, providing a good nine- to twelve-month onboarding and mentorship transition.

HOW: My role is funded by 25% programs and 75% fundraising. As an organization, our budget for 2020 was about 40% fundraising and 60% fee-for-service work.

Erik Kloeker

Property Manager, Muir Valley

WHY: It’s amazing the amount of time and effort that goes into running an LCO. It’s also a lot to ask of someone as a volunteer, especially when the duties may be as big of a commitment as a full-time job. I’ve seen a lot of turnover in particular organizations—great people get involved, but due to the enormous time commitment, they may never get to climb and get burned out on their position in a year or two. If an LCO can afford to hire a paid staffer, they can be a great asset. LCOs with paid employees often still have a great need for volunteers, but having someone who can dedicate enough time to managing those volunteers effectively can really help the organization meet its goals.

WHEN: We made the switch to a paid property manager in November 2018. The decision was based on the fact that Muir Valley was seeing such an increase in visitors that we needed someone local, on the ground, to take care of problems, rather than adding them to an endless to-do list. The majority of our board of directors and volunteers live 2-4 hours away, which makes management from a distance a real challenge. We got to a point where we needed to dedicate more time and resources than volunteers were capable of.

HOW: My position is funded through a combination of Muir Valley parking lot donation revenue and individual donors.

Resources for Climbing Advocates

Check out our library of tools and resources for local climbing organizations and advocates.
Advocate Toolkit