Community Leadership Summit Wiki


Sesion hosted by Lars of the Melton Foundation.

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Keeping Volunteers Engaged


Our group represented a diverse group of volunteer-management interests, ranging from open-source technical projects to online communities to public agencies with volunteer programs.

Many members of the discussion group expressed particular concern over seasonal or project-cycle fluctiuation, in which volunteer interest and engagement falls off sharply after the major activity ends.

Bringing in new volunteers:

  • Recruit the passionate: find members of the community who are already strongly engaged with the "product" and invite them to make the transition from user to contributor.
  • Build community, don't assign tasks--help people find their own way to help rather than imposing responsibilities by fiat.
  • However, it's also important to provide structure and options. The question "What do you want to do?" is too open-ended and can be imposing, putting the volunteer on the spot. Also, clearly prioritize tasks, so that volunteers willing to be flexible can choose the level of responsibility they are comfortable with.
    • The Mozilla Foundation's Get Involved page is "a work of art" for how to do this
  • Low-hanging fruit is a good place to start: offer new volunteers quick and easy tasks to help them build confidence. Early-engagement tasks should also have clear goals, parameters, and time commitments.
  • Give volunteers, both new and experienced, responsibility and ownership, so that the value of their work is clear to them.
  • Also be sure to provide them with the tools and resources they need to be successful; an example of this is tutorials and training resources for a technical volunteer.
    • Provide different types of instruction for different learning types: offer both text and video tutorials, for example
  • When recruiting skilled volunteers, it can be necessary to test their skills and knowledge before connecting them to assignments. Asking about skills is often insufficient, as potential volunteers may overestimate their abilities.
    • Since this can feel prohibitive, it's a good idea to disguise this testing as a friendly "tell us about yourself" questionnaire

Sustaining established volunteers:

  • Emphasize the sense of community and team commitment: most volunteers appreciate a sense of belonging
    • There are, of course exceptions; some volunteers (particularly in technical fields) value the work itself more than the community, and can even find social obligation off-putting
    • Social gatherings (real-life or virtual), particulary after large events or projects, are a powerful tool for strengthening ties in a volunteer community
  • Novelty is essential to volunteer retention. Most volunteers will lose interest if the experience is repetitious.
  • Add proportionate value to the investment of volunteer time. The "joy of service" is enough for small commitments, but larger commitments should be rewarded with perks and benefits such as training, professional references and advice, or official recognition.
    • The Mozilla Foundation, for instance, provides its core contributors with many of the same perks as its employees
  • Acknowledge that life happens; sometimes people just have to stop contributing. Honest communication helps avoid resentments.

Managing distractions:

  • We ran out of time for this part of the discussion but agreed to resume it later. Your comments here!