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Comunidades, English, Gestión e innovación

The moth and the fire: on the lifecycle of volunteer moderators

There are two schools of though about moderation. One stresses the advantages of a skilled, dedicated, company-aligned professional, another extols the virtues of motivated, knowledgeable, involved volunteers. IMHO, both are right, and the answer is the right mix.

Macuarium‘s experience with volunteer work is extensive: we’ve run (and keep running) the site, and the system of communities, under a practically 100% volunteer model. From systems administration and security to issue tracking, moderation and content generation.

This has many virtues (some of the philosophical) and several disadvantages. They’re all basically in the definition of volunteer, but it’s worth the while looking at it again because the same mistakes keep being made.

A volunteer is a person with a non-professional relationship to “the cause” that does a professional’s work, because he or she believes in the goodnes of “the cause”, likes the people involved, or simply and plainly enjoys the work.

In the short run, a volunteer is the most powerful mover and the most motivated worker. But very soon it becomes critical to align their tasks to their tastes, abilities and time availability. It is extremely easy to tire them off or bore them off. Indeed very few people grow beyond an early effort into serious volunteers.

By careful alignment of tasks, attentive fostering of abilities, and permanent appreciation of their work, you can keep most volunteers comfortably running and enjoying what they do. If you forgo any of those, you better have a good cause or a really great work environment.

Eventually, most of those volunteers flag. Often, it’s simply that the demands on their time grow, or that they acquire new and warmer interests. But most often, in community work, it’s some of the issues above: tasks that are not aligned to their abilities (and so become chores, uphill and job-like), abilities that do not grow (specifically those related to moderation skills), perceived lack of appreciation (conflict with troublesome users is a good burner, conflict within the team is rarer but lethal).

Then there is the hard-core, that mythical creature that emerges in long-running, powerful communities. The type of person that really “is” the community. Who cares, becomes involved, and (hopefully) shapes the evolution of the community. The type that goes beyond power-user or moderator or collaborator to become a living part of the concept… and a key to its work.

These hard-core volunteers are much harder to burn out, although not attending to the aforementioned issues is a sure-fire recipe to lose them in the end. But they have another source of risk.

Hard-cores have a vision. If not now, then after a while. They have a dream, an idea of where the community is going or should go, a perception of the people in the team, and it’s so powerful that it drives them to greater sacrifices of personal time and skill.

This makes them tremendously fragile. A goal, a project, that fails after months of effort; a cherished policy that is abandoned; a familiar person who drops off or disappoints them. The closer the person is to the core of the project, the harder the emotional impact of this kind of things. They may be more resilient to user trouble, or to having to spend Christmas Night fending off web maggots. But they are so much more sensitive to perceived letdowns by the community.

The takeaway

There’s three lessons from all this, and the first is simple: make sure the jobs you hand to volunteers are fun, light, and get positive feedback.

The second lesson, about hardcores, is to pay attention to those letdowns and course shifts that won’t even be commented by customers, users and members, but that make or break the hardcore’s commitment. Dropping a project may make every sense, but may lose you a (methaphorical) right arm. Taking (or not taking) a politically-charged position may equal shooting off your own (metaphorical) foot. The closer a volunteer is to the core, the more identified with a vision of the community, the more fragile his or her motivation. So be as clear as you can and check you assumptions. Being hardcore does not mean being unconditional. A volunteer and a friend are two different things.

And third, try to avoid putting absolutely key work in the hands of volunteers in the long term. Moderation is usually all right, and content might, but web admin, development, design, ad sales… will not work well this way beyond the short term. These are (usually) non-thrilling, chore-like tasks with lower recognition, which demand a fixed and steady commitment. It’s tempting to put a hardcore volunteer onto them (you trust them, and they’re so driven, and they appreciate being in the inner operative sanctum). But you should keep in mind that they’re a fragile and valuable asset to the community, and you’re placing their commitment in harm’s way.

Of course yoy may do it for philosophical (or other) reasons. Just be warned. Chores kill volunteers, and key positions can’t be left unmanned. So, if you can, keep those moths away from the heat.

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