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On volunteer management: issues and people

In most people’s everyday work experience, there’s nice coworkers (and I’m dumping together here colleagues, reports, bosses, partners and customers) and there’s people whom you dislike. In a normal business environment, you just get along with everyone because there’s something else you want (your job done and a pay check) and so do them. There may be some backstabbers, some suckups, some unreliables and some sharpbooted people, and you usually just learn to be reasonably happy and do your your work in that environment. Yes, you do avoid some people, and maybe even use the sharp elbow on others, but (unless some exceptional situation) you don’t just walk away from the company.

Now, consider a volunteer effort. Maybe it’s an NGO, maybe an political campaign, maybe it’s an in-company community of practice. The rules of engagement have changed, and you better realize it.

Let’s consider the “inner team” or collaborators: facilitators, field workers. Unpaid people who devote time to a cause because they believe in it… and also, crucially, they believe in the people whom their working with. They expect coherence, good values, niceness in short (the long version is too long for a blog post). If they find strain, lack of purpose, incoherence, ethical incongruences… they will bolt.

And the more personal the team relationship gets, the more exacting the demands. To put it in perspective, I’d say that “issue” and “relationship” are both driving forces for collaboration. If you base it on one or the other, you’d better make sure you keep your performace up to scratch.


This is a key volunteer management issue: some advocate more “issue-driven”, job-like relationships (“we’re in this for a cause, we don’t holiday together”); some advocate closer “people-driven” collaboration (“hey-how’s-the-wife”). In the first example, you can have volunteer teams that don’t ever come into sighting range of each other but collaborate on tasks, maybe via the web, and as long as the goal is relevant and the work goes well, everyone’s happy. In the second example, the specific work is far less relevant and you absolutely need the team to have a good internal dynamic or it’ll crumble; physical meetings spark flurries of activity.

It may be transparent already, but I favour the first. For two reasons: I believe in getting things done, and I don’t want to judge people. I tend to run volunteer projects in that fashion too, but the longer the project, the harder it becomes. When the short sprint turns into a long slog (i.e. when, after setting and launching the CoP, you have to manage it every single day), issue is just not enough. You need to get along with other volunteers. You need to respect the admins. You need to like your CoP members. You need to believe in the policies you’re implementing. It’s not just the goal anymore.

And people questions are tricky. On a volunteer organization, it’s hard to be selective (picking just mature, balanced and socially able people as collaborators or facilitators) but you absolutely need to try. Friendship issues emerge: some people get along with others, some don’t so much. And there’s the killing matter of loyalties: when the team is formed, members defend each other and expect the same from others. This needs to be tempered for the team to be affective (corporatism is a vice), but it also has a very radical consequence: members who show stronger loyalties to outside groups who happen to clash with yours cause enormous emotional charge. This starts to put people in a “either them or us” situation, and can get very (issue-wise) valid people out of the door.

In the same vein, whereas issue-driven collaboration is a low-emotional-intensity affair, people-driven collaboration is a hot soup. You can’t scold people as freely as you want to. You need to be aware of who’s a close friend of whom (say you step on a member’s misbehaviour, and she’s a close friend of a key facilitator: you’d better be very diplomatic). Emotional involvement with the task and the people involved grows, and setbacks or rebuffs can have serious consequences. Management becomes a very intensive job with a lot of coaching (and even hand-holding) to do, and cultural issues (such as respect of other people’s views and beliefs) take a new relevance.

Of course, there’s the positive side that a people-driven team can show more task flexibility and more long-term resilience than an issue-driven one. Indeed it’s closer to a friends’ group than a team, with its advantages and disadvantages.

Put that in the balance. And be very aware of the consequences when you first decide to let the informal or people-driven start to matter in your volunteer group…

… or when it simply does, because it will happen in any case :-). You’d probably do well to plan ahead for it.


7 comentarios en “On volunteer management: issues and people

  1. And be very aware of the consequences when you first decide to let the informal or people-driven start to matter in your volunteer group

    Miguel – As you have noted, you don’t get to decide this. What you are describing is a process of socialisation that occurs in any group of humans (be it a knitting circle or a multi-national corporation). As you note early on, there are fewer explicit controls (i.e. money or legal contracts) on individuals in voluntary organisations. Voluntary groups are often harder to manage than businesses for this very reason. In my experience they are intensely political beasts.

    Of course, there’s the positive side that a people-driven team can show more task flexibility and more long-term resilience than an issue-driven one

    Well, quite – this would indicate a team that has been well-managed & well-led (not the same things). In the business world, project teams will often work themselves to the bone not solely because of a material reward or some nebulous goal but because they know that their team members rely on them.

    I am being unfair but the impression I get having finished your post is: “everything would be really great if it wasn’t for those pesky people & their feelings for each other, why can’t they stay focused?”

    Which is a question every people manager, every project manager, every community facilitator and every leader has asked themselves in private. And to which there is no straightforward answer.

    Publicado por Matt Moore | agosto 9, 2007, 9:45 am
  2. Hi Matt,

    you’ve caught my frame of mind indeed :-D.

    Still, there’s also some sort of management issue here. I mean, of course the socialization happens (http://www.knowledgeboard.com/item/659) but it’s not unmanageable. You can choose to give way to “he’s consorting with the enemy” grudges (and kick a collaborator out), or you can try to prove that it doesn’t matter. You can allow coordination meetings to turn into BBQs, or you can keep them focused (and schedule a monthly BBQ – there’s no getting out of that). Conversely, you can ignore the socialization process at your peril and one day find there is a social structure you are not involved in… and that’s unconfortable for members or managers :-D.

    I’m lucky enough to have found a co-leader that’s almost fully social, so I can concentrate on being cold-blooded and issue-driven most of the time. And the team’s an impressive lot, which rubs along surprisingly well (we have such a vetting system that it would be more surprising if it didn’t, too). But it irks me. “Why can’t they stay [always] focused”, indeed :-D. Pesky humans.

    Best regards,


    Publicado por Miguel | agosto 9, 2007, 9:56 am
  3. If I learn their human ways, maybe they’ll let me be an honorary one (N.B. that is sometimes how I feel).

    I think the points you make are good ones:
    – Allow specific spaces for people to socialise in if they wish to or not (e.g. BBQs).
    – Keep participants on track when you need to – which to me is about some kind of social contract for people (“hey we only get an hour together a month and we need to sort these things out”).
    – Recognise that people are different, have different needs and require co-ordinators with a diversity of skills/approaches. And this diversity is good and supports things like innovation & resilience.

    The two extremes are the “country club” organisation where everyone rubs along fine but no one does anything and the “true believers” organisation where talk unrelated to ‘the cause’ is verboten. Both extremes annoy me greatly and bring out the opposing behaviours in me.

    Publicado por Matt Moore | agosto 9, 2007, 10:42 am
  4. I just read this quote somewhere – and I’ll be darned if I can recall, and I can’t get it quite right to google it, but it went something like “plan to interact with people how they really are vs how you want them to be.”

    It is reframing one’s mindset. It is hard to put into words. The technological parallel is “start with the tools people are already using.” We get started in our zones of comfort, then we can move or be moved beyond them. So the social animal can become more task focused, the task master – more social. But having the ability to both start and regularly return to our comfort zones makes it more likely we’ll also stray out of them.

    The more I try and think and observe about my and others’ collaboration patterns, the more I come back to notice that we have distinct preferences and differences which are stronger drivers of practices that I wish they were!

    In other words, we’re pesky humans. (Well said, Matt)

    So for me, the starting question is: how can I be more aware of my preferences and how can I learn from others how this impacts their participation. Because the only person I KNOW I can change is me.

    How do you guys stay self aware and in touch with how others perceive you? I I wish I knew more…

    Publicado por Nancy White | agosto 9, 2007, 8:06 pm
  5. Spot on, Matt, those points are indeed part of our practices, and they mostly work, but I’m increasingly aware that they are not enough. Once moderators become familiar with the team (they have stretched their confort zone :-)) and their basic or administrative tasks (another stretch to their confort zone), it becomes all too cozy. Routine, with a warm fuzzy friendly feeling.

    So when something shocks them out of the warm fuzziness, it affects their moderating behaviour. It should not, I believe: they should be permanently striving to be out of it (or at least, as Nancy puts it, to come out of it frequently). They should not assume cozyness is the natural state of things.

    I think you have spotted it, Nancy. We need to keep things new so the issues stay in plain sight instead of overlaid by the social links.

    Re your question about self awareness :-), I do two things: I try to sound off people (colleagues) on what they think of execution and direction (how I do things and where I’m heading), making it very clear that I appreciate criticism… and I renounce to care how “others” perceive me. I just take care of what I actually do. I know it’s not the perfect solution :-D.

    Besides, I’m lucky. I married a very critical and observant woman :-D.

    Publicado por Miguel | agosto 10, 2007, 9:13 am
  6. Hello Miguel,

    as you know being a volunteer manager is another one of my hats. I also hold a professional certification (competence based) on it, and train volunteer managers as well.

    What strikes me in this occasion is, it’s true the only person you can change is you but… should you? That is to say, running a community with all its different people and preferences in a way that accomplishes goals and gets the work done is like pairing colors and styles. Much of it is subjective but most of it can be learnt (if one wants to).

    As far as the warm and fuzzy feelings go, it’s like anxiety. You need a fair amount to get to a great performance, but too much kills the deal. So yes, people that are too fuzzy too soon (sounding fake even when just wanting to “make friends”), or too superficial too often (sounding uninterested in doing the kind of work it takes for the organization to accomplish its mission) NEED to be deterred. I use a couple of guideline tricks: no one-liners (like “me too”, “thanks”, “wow”) and no flirting. Excessively social people run away when they read it OR you can still use the guideline to silence their excesses.

    I too have a very social group of co-leaders so that I can concentrate on the “down-to-earth” part. I am as creative as I am organized, and I prefer to try to foster a sort of organized creativity rather than a creative mess or a sterile/boring organized place. I don’t care how this is perceived. … Usually the people I like like me and that’s what I am after ;)

    So in short, poke social people to be more practical and practical people to be more social. I drive people nuts with this method… but in the end they tell me I helped them becoming more balanced. And, that’s precisely what I teach to my trainees: do not be afraid to look at things in multiple ways… ALWAYS keeping your goal in mind and NEVER thinking that “hey whatever is fine”.

    Publicado por Rosanna | agosto 11, 2007, 11:14 am
  7. Miguel:
    First, I’m so glad Matt talked about the Pesky Human sentiment of your post, as I was thinking just that as I read, and Matt’s post made me smile. I am on the road and cannot spend much time on your post (and would love to, as I am so in the middle of this, all the time, with my work being entirely in the world of community benefit organizations, where cause is everything.)

    However, a thought that keeps rumbling through my mind is that we kid ourselves into thinking we really can smoothly and triumphantly “manage” humans. We can guide and inspire and frighten and threaten, but I believe the sense that we can truly manage humans is silly. And the fact that year after year, fad after fad arises, to address that fact that humans are not responding to the 1,000 fads already in existence to try to manage us is a case in point.

    My sense has been that if we can lead and inspire and guide and encourage, then we are speaking to the highest potential in individuals, and that highest potential will seek to do what is best for the cause. When we try to manage, we are speaking to the animal side of our nature, which brings with it all the things we share with the rest of the animal world – fear, greed, tribalism – and did I mention fear?

    From there, it is far more likely that groups will self-inspire, self-guide, and self-regulate. But those pesky human quirks will always arise. As Nancy noted, much has to do with meeting people where they are, rather than where we want them to be. And in my experience, groups will stay on task far better when the “where they are” is rooted in the inspiration that brings them to the table in the first place.

    One last thought (this has gotten quite long – sorry) – and that is when people gather around a common problem, their fears (the pesky parts) come out faster. When they gather around a common vision, less so. At least in my experience.

    Thanks, as always, for something meaty to chew on!

    Publicado por Hildy Gottlieb | agosto 11, 2007, 5:31 pm


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