Volunteer Management Mistakes to Avoid

Volunteer Management Mistakes to Avoid

Stay away from these hazards

By: Joan Heberger and Karen Thomas

May 5, 2000

As your guide, my duty is to help you to steer clear of difficult terrain in the land of technical volunteer management and to provide survival tips in case you find yourself in a rocky territory. The best way to start is to map out a clear definition of what you want your volunteer to do, and when you'd like to have it finished. Establish one primary contact on your site to interact with the volunteer. Even with a good map in hand, however, you may find that you stumble across some trouble spots. I've managed many projects in the past, and I think the best way to help you is to lead by example. So, get on your volunteer management gear and follow me!

Miscommunication Sink Hole

You'll see here ahead of us the dreaded miscommunication sink hole. It is one of the most dangerous threats to a healthy volunteer project. It comes in many different varieties, from unclear or shifting work plans and guidelines, to lack of response from either the volunteer or the nonprofit. These sink holes are an obstacle, but they can be surmounted. Look ahead for the characteristics of the different type of sink holes I've encountered and how I got around them.

Getting Past the Lack of Response Sink Hole

An elementary school had set up a volunteer project to have someone come in and train them on how to develop a Web site for the class. Being a school, there was red tape galore. Meetings were set then canceled, the school was to arrange for an ISP and didn't. In a normal mentoring project, I generally follow up with both the client and the volunteer every two weeks. When I heard back that the volunteer was frustrated, I increased the frequency of my follow up to a weekly basis until it seemed that the project was in the clear. This kept both the teacher's and the volunteer's enthusiasm for the project going.

Bridging Unclear Guidelines Sink Hole

Edgewood Center, a family support center, had contacted us for a volunteer to help create security solutions for their Windows 95 machines. This project fell into the "lack of response sink hole" with another mentor that wouldn't respond to my, or the client's, requests. Since my follow up didn't work, I arranged for another mentor to come take over.

In my routine follow up with the volunteer I found out that the client had decided to change the work plan, asking the volunteer to set up an NT network. This change of work focus is most likely the reason why the initial volunteer didn't work out. They may not have had the skills to set up a network, or they were concerned about the time that it would take to complete the project. I spoke to the client and developed new guidelines for this project. The new work plan and guidelines created a sturdy bridge to cross the treacherous ground safely and the volunteer was able to build that network.

Overall Sinkhole Strategy

The tried and true survival technique I've found for bridging these gaps is "polite" perseverance. I always try to make it work with a volunteer before giving up. If the volunteer isn't responding, I check in with them to see how the project's going. Sometimes this is enough to get them to contact the nonprofit. If they don't respond within the week, then I considerately ask them if there are any concerns or comments that they have about the project, and if there's anything I can do to offer my help. If I still don't hear back then I contact them again and remind them that the project has a finite deadline. At this point, I also provide them with an out if they need it, so that I know that this is truly over and that I've got to start the hunting for another volunteer.

Path Obstructing "Work Blan" Boulders

We've successfully made it past all of those sink holes and now are encountering a gigantic boulder in our volunteer project pathway. These are tricky obstacles; sometimes you think the path is clear when suddenly a landslide will drop a gigantic boulder right in front of you. Other times, you've picked a route that has a boulder already in place. The best way to get through these boulders is to break them into smaller rocks, enabling you to pass on through.

AvoidingA Boulder-Ridden Path

A youth activities agency contacted us requesting help when the technical staff person left. There was tons of work to do, including installing memory, upgrading a network operating system, setting up new computers, and installing software on each of 15 computers. Because that work would probably scare away any volunteer that wasn't already committed to the organization's success, I recommended that they work with a volunteer to handle the memory upgrades and setting up the new computers. That way, the group could prepare the office for the future network upgrades. The volunteer would have a clear short-term job description. After the volunteer installed the memory and set up the new computers, the organization hired a consultant to finish the more complex upgrades. The volunteer remained involved to help tutor staff members on their new software.

Dealing With An Avalanche

A Battered Women's shelter requested that a volunteer come in and set up 3 new computers, transfer the data from the old machines, and configure them in a simple peer to peer network. Sounded like a small project to me! Little did I know that they had a huge database that required someone to perform a migration (i.e. transfer all the data into the new database). A major data migration like that takes a lot of time to do and also requires different skills from those needed to set up machines and networks. I spoke with both the volunteer and the client, letting them know that this was larger than the agreed scope of the volunteer project and that it was probably more appropriate for a consultant to do. The client agreed, and they maintained a good relationship with the volunteer. (They also found a good consultant!)

Path Clearing Strategy

The risks of having the volunteer do something that they find too overwhelming are many. Not only might you loose a valuable volunteer, but you also might have someone who really isn't skilled at the task and may, inadvertently, do more harm than good. Again, keep the project small and doable and you're more likely to get great results.

Parting Words

I hope you found some of these experiences helpful. I know that working with technical volunteers can be scary. They're different from most volunteers since they know much more than you do about the actual project. Looking for cues that the volunteer is sending may help you to realize that something is wrong with either the communication or scope of the project. Most technical volunteers appreciate it when I recognize that the project's taken a difficult turn and check in with them to see how they're doing. Being alert and aware will help to ensure that your volunteer project is a success.

About the Authors:

Joan Heberger is a former project associate at CompuMentor.

Karen Thomas is Senior Program Manager for TechCommons at CompuMentor.


Copyright © 2000 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.


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