HR Toolkit

Workplaces that Work

Case Study #3: Big Brothers Big Sisters - Edmonton

  Vital Signs    
Location: Edmonton, Alberta
Number of employees: 60
Annual budget: $3.4 million
Year founded: 1972

Big Brothers Big Sisters Edmonton & Area (BBBSE) is a community-supported, mentor based organization committed to the healthy development of children in need and their families through provision of quality, one-to-one volunteer relationships and related programs.

Executive Director Elizabeth (Liz) O’Neill has been at the helm of the organization since its inception. She characterizes BBBSE as robust and healthy from both a funding and functioning viewpoint. In recent years, the organization has seen an increase in demand for its services and so has focused on increasing capacity to be responsive to the emerging needs of clients and the community. O’Neill has overseen the organization’s growth - which doubled the number of children it served between 2004 and 2007 – with that number expected to double again by 2013. Surprisingly, this has been achieved without doubling staff or overtaxing existing resources. O’Neill attributes this success to three key factors:

  • A human resources management framework grounded in a strong client and service delivery focus
  • An organizational culture that values employees
  • Partnerships, collaborations and shared service models

Each of these factors has impacted how BBBSE employees work as well as the role of the organization in the broader community.


Human resources management framework grounded in a strong client and service delivery focus

Watch the Case Study Video on YouTubeMany non-profit organizations face ongoing challenges when it comes to human resources management (HRM). Struggling to juggle competing demands of clients and funders, HRM often falls by the wayside, in spite of its acknowledged importance. In 2002, an innovative solution was proposed by the Muttart Foundation in the form of an HR Cluster Program. As a shared services program, the HR Cluster focused specifically on pooling resources to provide a group of agencies support and access to expertise in HR management.

The six agencies involved in the Edmonton pilot group, including BBBSE, collectively employed 250 full time and 77 part time staff. Led by Eldon Emerson, an HR professional who provided support and counsel, the cluster worked to address various HR needs including the administration of salaries and benefits, policy and procedure development, performance management, and best practices with respect to hiring selection and interviewing. Executive Directors in the cluster met regularly as a group and worked one-on-one with Emerson to address their organization’s HR challenges.

One of the projects that grew out of the cluster for BBBSE was an organizational review process that shifted O’Neill’s focus from dealing with immediate staff issues to matters related to organizational structure, the services they offered and how they were offered, as well as board relations, roles and responsibilities.  As a result of this organizational review process, the agency was able to reconfigure its programming structure in a way that allowed them to serve more clients, while not overtaxing staff or requiring additional staff.  In re-thinking their service delivery model, they moved away from programming silos towards a structure that saw staff connected to a community or geographic region rather than a particular program. By developing new ways of partnering with other agencies in the communities that it serves, the organization was better able to meet client needs while creating a new staffing structure that allowed for better support and increased engagement of the staff team.

Prior to working with the cluster O’Neill reported that much HR management took place through hallway discussions between herself and the finance manager with the two of them juggling responsibility for the portfolio. Through learning that emerged from the cluster, BBBSE decided to hire a manager of human resources and learning in addition to a manager of mission effectiveness – two new permanent staff positions – because experience had taught them unless they created dedicated positions for these priority areas it was likely that many of the learnings and benefits of the HR cluster would fade away. These new positions didn’t add to the organization’s budget as they were resourced from savings resulting from the re-worked service delivery model.


An organizational culture that values employees

Many organizations pay lip service to putting people first.  At BBBSE, an effective people first strategy is essential to making the organization work. The core of the agency’s human resource capacity is a volunteer workforce of more than 2,000 individuals who interact directly with its clients. There are 35 staff who support these volunteers through face-to-face or phone meetings.  

High volunteer and staff retention

O’Neill credits a great deal of the organization’s success to the long term involvement by staff and senior volunteers. “When an organization experiences continuous turnover in key positions a great deal of time is spent getting everyone onto the same page. We’ve been working together for such a long time that we have a shared vision of what we’re trying to achieve, and have a common understanding of what needs to happen for things to get done.” This type of shared experience contributes not only to a shared vision but also to a common language, enabling the organization to more easily take advantage of emerging opportunities and to make significant changes fairly quickly. Time that other organizations spend training staff and board is available to BBBSE for reflection and planning, activities that many agencies rarely find the opportunity to pursue.

When people do leave BBBSE they tend to stay connected to the organization.   According to O’Neill board members go on to sit on other influential boards and remain BBBSE champions. Staff and board often return as volunteers. Their continued engagement means that organizational knowledge is preserved, and capacity is enhanced. This ability to retain staff and volunteers has occurred as a direct result of the organization’s focus on its people and the shared commitment all those involved have to doing the best they can for the children and families they serve.

Increased staff involvement & engagement

The BBBSE leadership team meet regularly with their direct reports, creating opportunities for feedback (in both directions), voicing of concerns and a forum for ongoing open communication. Most importantly, the organization listens to its staff.  

As a result of re-designing the organization’s service delivery  model and processes, which involved delegating some decision making to front line staff, staff are now involved in more facets of the organization’s business. While programs and services are developed in response to client and community needs and through partnerships with other organizations, staff members are heavily involved in the process. As O’Neill points out, organizational decisions have to work for the staff as well as for the clients in order to be effective.

Another area that staff are now fully engaged and involved in is annual work planning and budgeting. The process starts with a staff group identifying emerging trends, issues, and opportunities, and initiating a discussion of whether changes are required to existing programs and services. The resulting discussion paper is shared with remaining staff for review and input. The amended document is then used by members of the Leadership Team to craft departmental business plans incorporating goals, objectives, strategies, desired outcomes, and resources required. These pieces are fed into an overall organizational business plan. In this way staff are more engaged and have a vested interest in the final outcome.


Succession planning

A final piece of the BBBSE people strategy worth mentioning is its recognition of the importance of succession planning. Ten years ago O’Neill made a conscious decision to hire young people straight out of university with an eye towards creating leaders of the future. Over the years a number of these women have taken maternity leave; all of them have returned to BBBSE. Most returned at .5 or .8 time believing they would do so for a few years, but almost all have kept to these reduced loads. The organization has been flexible enough to work with staff to create shared positions to enable this model to continue. As a further testament to the model’s success and to BBBS’ overall HRM process, at a time when there is strong competition in terms of salary, benefits and other perks, the organization has lost only one staff member in the last 12 months.

Partnerships, collaboration and shared service models

A critical component of BBBSE’s success is a commitment to partnership models and collaborations operating at different levels of the organization.  

BBBSE has a long history of working with other like-minded agencies to develop and deliver programs. In fact, it operates a number of programs in conjunction with other charitable organizations such as the one with the Boys and Girls Clubs whereby staff from both organizations work together to offer services in three low income housing complexes. Through its involvement with the cluster, BBBSE has been able to identify additional partnership opportunities that will enable it to achieve one of its primary goals of serving more children/families.

In the past, BBBSE – like many similar organizations – focused on the suite of programs and services it had to offer and ensured the community was aware of them. Now, it is shifting from a model of fitting the people to the programs to fitting the programs to the people. A good example is BBBSE’s partnership with the Family Centre, which began in 1993. Rather than having families go to separate facilities to provide the same information to a series of different organizations, the organizations now partner with each other to enable the families to provide information once. This new approach serves clients better by cutting out paperwork and allowing for accurate, shared information across the appropriate organizations. The partners work collaboratively with families to find the best mix of programs and services which are then delivered by the staff of the different organizations jointly.

The organization now has the capacity to assist smaller Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies seeking infrastructure support.  By launching a regional version of the shared services model, Big Brothers Big Sisters will double the number of communities it serves without overburdening existing staff. In assuming management and administration responsibilities BBBSE has enabled smaller organizations to build their core client services. This has created a very different HR model and operating environment. BBBSE has developed local advisory committees and identified local agency representatives in each community. Each year BBBSE staff runs training sessions as a forum for information sharing and a means of ensuring that all those involved develop and use a common language.  In the “old days” BBBSE would have been called a head office. In this brave new world, O’Neill acknowledges they have yet to come up with the perfect term but notes the model is still a work in progress and an appropriate name will eventually emerge.

Looking forward

Watch the Case Study Video on YouTubeO’Neill sees a direct correlation between her involvement in the cluster and BBBSE’s capacity to serve more children and families as well as to improve its support of staff. The new organizational structure positions BBBSE to meet programming goals and equips the agency to handle expected growth. When asked to share a few final thoughts O’Neill reflected “It is really the intentional focus on HR that has enabled overall organizational success. In the last six – seven years, because we have dedicated time and resources to developing effective HR systems and have involved staff in their development we are strengthening not only our staff and their capacity to deliver programs; by sharing these models we are building the capacity of the organizations thatwe partner with and therefore collectively the sector is better able to serve children and families in our communities.” And, it is O’Neill’s firm belief that the organizational structure of the future is likely to be based more on the cluster or regional shared services model than what most organizations currently have in place.

For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton, please visit

For more information about the Workplaces that Work Case Study Series, please contact