How to Work with Volunteers

Whether you are a volunteer, or have worked with them, it is very different from working in an office, or even as a freelancer, consultant, or contractor.

Because the work world is big, you will sooner or later work with volunteers and face some interesting situations. I spoke with Paul Lagasse, of Active Voice Writing and Editorial Services, a writer who has gathered up some experience with volunteers. Both of us have worked a lot with volunteers and discovered that often we wind up doing the lion’s share of the work.

Here are some tips we came up with (and have put into action) so you can be smarter.

When you work with volunteers, you don’t get to choose your team. But you can help people decide if they want to join your project by being clear in your goals and process. If you are running the show, you can deliberately set up the project or workflow in a way that would discourage some people either from joining outright or from sticking with it for long.

Problem: “Idea people.” Paul defines them as founts of brilliant ideas that other people have to carry out. My experience is with people who say “I want to do the creative part, because that’s fun. Someone else can do the actual work.” That’s a pretty exact quote from about two years ago.

Solution: For every great idea offered, bounce it right back at them: “Great idea, how do you plan on carrying it out and what resources do you need?” The people who don’t respond go away fast. The people who do respond are the self-selected leaders of the group, the people I can count on. This technique is a great separator of strong leaders from people with good ideas who won’t get the work done.

Problem: Too many ideas that keep coming after the work has started, often followed by the assertion, “You can never have too many ideas.”

Solution: Not every idea is a good idea or a usable one. But often, tossing ideas around helps the group come up with better ideas than individuals. Set a clear time for brainstorming. Have a beginning and an ending time. At the brainstorming session, anyone can suggest anything. All ideas are written down. Discussions and explanations are allowed. No one gets to be “devil’s advocate” or you will wind up with one person spitting out ideas like a tennis ball machine, and another person swatting them down. Once the time is up, thank everyone and announce that their ideas will be considered, but the final decision belongs to [a team, an individual]. Then turn all the ideas over to the creative individual or group who gets to use them as fodder without having to choose one specific one.

Problem: Passive aggressive control freaks who want to watch over every action and criticize every decision that isn’t theirs. They often think they not only have the only answer, but the only right way to make it happen.

Solution: Because responsibilities are so fluid and situational ( you ask for volunteers as opposed to assigning duties), no one can build an empire and people have to work cooperatively. Encourage people to talk to each other as much, if not more, than they do to you. They become friends, not rivals. They want to help each other. If you are lucky, they come together as a team.

Problem: People who want to aggrandize the group to their personal agenda or whim.

Solution: Building a group that wants to work together, that sees a goal and has a way to work toward it, cuts through personal agendas. Divide the work into small enough pieces so that one or two people can handle it alone. Then one person can’t get traction over the whole group. Someone driving their own agenda needs a lot of attention and a large group to dominate. Small groups with a definite workplan will squash the chemistry needed for them to flourish.
General tips for success:
* Give people their head and let them charge at full gallop.
* Put people in touch with other people who can make their idea happen.
*Encourage and publicly appreciate people who step up and do.

Working with volunteers can be an amazing, powerful, humbling, and enriching experience. And as a result, you can really enjoy doing something that you never thought you could do. You’re not a boss or a king or a chief, but in your own quiet way you notice you have leadership qualities that can be put to good use.

When people get together to do something, the opportunity shouldn’t be wasted or laden with petty squabbles or personal issues that will kill a good project before it’s done.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Paul Lagasse is a writer and model builder.  (c) 2007 All rights reserved.

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