Tips for Project Management in Volunteer Organizations

Oct 18, 2013
11 Min Read

It’s hard enough to motivate team members when you pay them. But project management for an all-volunteer organization has its own unique challenges.

In the late 90s, I once arranged a “meet the press” panel for a meeting of the Association of PC User Groups. One of the computer user group officers, clearly thinking about the difficulty of convincing his members to contribute newsletter articles, asked my magazine editor how he motivated writers. “That’s easy,” Alan replied. “I tell Esther, ‘If you don’t write, you don’t eat.’”

Whatever your angst as a project manager at your day job, you have this much to be grateful for: The team members are paid to get the job done. They may do it poorly, or with bad attitude, or they may otherwise disappoint you. But you have that basic motivation which does not need to be said aloud: If they don’t work, they don’t eat.

In a volunteer organization, that isn’t the case. People have to be motivated to get the job done, and they do it for every possible reason besides being paid. As the person in charge of the project, it means you need to develop different motivational skills, some of which do not come naturally.

I should know. My parents imparted me with the “community service” gene, and I was always encouraged to share my passions and indulge my idealism. I’ve started computer user groups, edited the newsletter for a model railroad club, acted as program chair for all-volunteer regional gatherings, served on nonprofit committees, and contributed to open source projects. Sometimes all of them before lunchtime.

And, I have discovered, I’m really good at it. One woman in my computer user group learned to avoid me because, she confessed afterwards, after talking to me she always found herself agreeing to help with another project. I’m the reason you can buy coffee mugs that say, “Stop me before I volunteer again!”

The good news, at least, is that these volunteer management skills are transferrable to your own Day Job. Because if you can learn to encourage people to do their best when money isn’t a factor, you’ll be great at motivating them when it is.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about motivating volunteers.

Find out what they are proud of, and enable them to share it. Don’t assume that everyone is motivated wholly by the organization’s grand lofty goal (“We’re going to change the world!”). A few may be driven by idealistic goals, and if you’re in charge it’s likely you’re one of them.

However, most people want to have fun working for-or-with something they care about.

Instead, approach team members individually. People love to be asked to help with something specific where they have some measure of enthusiasm, and wherein you (sincerely) value their expertise. Tell the would-be volunteer why you thought of him for this job, and why he would be perfect for it; few people can resist genuine appreciation and admiration.

A case in point. I’m on the review committee for the Anita Borg Systers Pass-It-On Awards, a non-profit that gives cash grants to women in IT. But I’m busy, so I don’t go out of my way to volunteer for additional tasks. Yet I got a personal note from an organizer of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in IT, asking if I’d be willing to moderate a “lunchtime table topic” for women interested in writing about technology… and gosh, how could I say no? I have a lot of advice to share!

Never ask for help in a general way. If you’re putting together a community fair, don’t ask from the podium, “Please let me know if you want to help!” Don’t expect people to respond to the e-mail newsletter plea to contribute. Few people ever step forward.

Instead, be specific with your needs: “We need three people to put together the booth on Saturday morning,” or “We have to staff the clubhouse every afternoon during Christmas season.” Make it easy for someone to sign up, such as creating an online form where they fill in the details. But don’t expect to get the majority of your volunteers by a call from the podium or by spitting out an email message.

Appeal to their non-financial desires. Just as money is only one component of job satisfaction, volunteer workers want to feel that their contributions make a difference. Yes, they want to help the project succeed, but many also see opportunities for their own careers – or they should. In your one-on-one chats with members, do not be shy about the opportunity to leverage this experience.

If you need someone to design a website for the project, or manage its accounting, or create costumes, find out which members might benefit from volunteering the time to do that job. A college student who designs the organization’s website can list the experience on her resume, and your recommendation may help her get her first job. A woodworker who wants an excuse to teach himself a new technique might be motivated by contributing his skills to a project he believes in. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for small businesspeople to network with others who share their sense of what’s important.

But again, never wait for the individuals to step forward. As project manager, you should get in touch with them.

Someone who complains has just volunteered. It’s really frustrating for a project manager (who probably is a volunteer too) to stand at the podium and listen to a member whine about a problem. I’ve seen it contribute to volunteer organizer burnout, time and again. We like to be appreciated, too, and it seems like all you hear is the complaints.

However, I’ve always taken the attitude that someone who complains has just offered to take over that part of the project – even if he didn’t know that’s what he was doing. When a computer user group member complained about, say, the signs in the parking lot, I replied publicly and with no snark, “That’s a good point, Brad. I can see that it matters a lot to you, and you’ve given it a lot of thought. In fact, I hereby delegate you to work on those signs and address the problem. Can you give us a report on the options by our meeting next month?”

This has one of two results. Either Brad shuts up, because he only wanted to whine – and I just made him responsible for the situation. Or – 80% of the time, in my experience – he enthusiastically accepts the challenge and tries to fix the issue.

In reality, Brad may be the only person who thinks the parking lot signs are a problem, but by giving him a way to contribute to what he thinks is important, he’s now a part of the overall solution. Either way, as project manager you just shut up a complainer, which is no small feat.

And two last items, which I hope are obvious enough that examples aren’t necessary:

Respect their time. These people are contributing outside their day jobs, with schedules that probably are already busy. You’re asking them to ignore their kids while they work on this task. So don’t pretend something is easy or fast if it isn’t.

Avoid politics. Nothing, nothing kills a volunteer project as fast as people jockeying for power. “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” said Henry Kissinger.

These tips just scratch the surface, but if you adopt them, your volunteer project has a much better chance of success.

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