The secret of motivating volunteers.

Motivating volunteers is like herding cats. “Herding cats is easy if you know the local value of tuna.” — me, some years ago. An observation I know of no-one else having made before me, so I’m taking this as my law of volunteer motivation. Lure them with something compelling.

My experience of volunteer motivation:

  1. Running an indie rock fanzine in the 1980s and 1990s. Your writers are writing for free; how do you keep them pumping out good stuff? How do you gently let down the really shit ones?
  2. Employed as paperwork administrator for a private school fundraising drive. That was easy because the volunteers had a very specific task: get the people on the donation level below them to donate, knowing the volunteer asking them had donated more than they were asking for. (Work that Pareto principle! This method is so effective it’s pretty much standard.)
  3. Editor and then supervisor on a student newspaper. Student papers pretty much exist to be written rather than read; the idea is to get fresh new university students doing something that they can look at and say “I made this!” when they’ve possibly never done anything, ever before. You need a certain amount of discipline to the task.
  4. Rocknerd, which is pretty much an indie rock fanzine again, but on the web. In this case, you give opinionated people somewhere to write stuff. I’ve almost no-one else bothering, because everyone’s got a blog of their own.
  5. Wikipedia. This is very different because your volunteers are taking up internet space rather than physical space. Also, on Wikipedia the volunteers are … sometimes a bit socially odd. The idea of organising all the facts in the world attracts people from further up the autistic spectrum than you would normally encounter, so some people’s social skills can be brittle. The authority thing is strictly meritocratic — being an admin (which really means “janitor”) or even an arbitrator (which really means “bouncer”) doesn’t cut it; you have to show consistent cluefulness to convince; there is no actual hierarchy. So to get stuff done you have to get very good at convincing people to work on what you want them to.

I’m also slightly amazed at projects like the Puffing Billy tourist railway in Melbourne. Even all the shitwork is done by volunteers, the sort of shitty jobs that turn a paid employee doing them to thoughts of socialist revolution — someone loves the railway so much they get up at three every morning to start the boiler heating! A lot of the tour guides are young folk doing it as work experience (tourism degrees and so forth) or retirees who like to do something for the general good that gets them out and meeting people.

Volunteers will work ten times as hard as any employee, but only because they want to be there and only on things they want to. But that motivation is so fragile, and volunteer effort is not fungible.

3 thoughts on “The secret of motivating volunteers.”

  1. I actually found it in a six year old email I tripped over, which ended with a note “I might make this into a post” :-) I think it’s apposite given the recent concern over getting women to participate, and getting people in general to participate. Wishful thinking won’t make it happen – it needs to be approached with a testable theory in hand.

  2. re getting women (or anybody else) to participate:
    The two beginnings of an article I wrote (because there was a link into nowhere, and I knew about the topic and could produce some basic facts without lots of effort) both got deleted; the links point nowhere again. Someone explain to me why I should go to even that little effort again, seeing as my time is likely to be wasted?

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