A World of Only Carrots

There are a wealth of books, blogs, webinars, and even inspirational tweets about motivating a team. Most of the ones I’ve read, however, assume a rather traditional model of a manager motivating their employees. This motivation takes on an entirely different character, though, when you are working with volunteers.

I’ve been coordinating technical projects entirely made up of volunteers for nearly ten years, and there’s really only one rule to making it work:

You have to make them want to work with you.

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Now, if only people were consistent about what makes them want to do anything! When you’re dealing with volunteer-based collaborations, the best tool in your toolbox is words.

How you use words makes an enormous difference in how they respond to what you are asking. The person you’re working with probably has a lot of demands on their time, such as their day job, their families, or other volunteer projects. You have three things you need to do in support of that guiding rule about making them want to work with you:

  1. Be clear about the purpose of your communication.
  2. Respect the existing demands on their time.
  3. Keep the language positive.

I have used this model even when essentially telling someone I was going to pull their material from a project if they didn’t start responding. Did I use those exact words? Heck, no! While that language is very clear in a threatening sort of way, it offers no respect for the other things going on in their lives, nor is it positive. But here’s how I said the same thing, with a much more positive response:

“I know we weren’t able to get this done in this round, but perhaps we can aim for the next round if your schedule permits? Is this something you’re still willing to work on, or should I withdraw it from the worklist?”

That breaks down into:

  • be clear on the problem (“we weren’t able to get this done”)
  • respect their time (“if your schedule permits”, “still willing to work on”)
  • be clear on what you’re asking for (“aim for next round”)
  • be clear on the resolution (“withdraw it from the worklist”)

For an individual to be involved in a volunteer project, there is almost certainly some personal motivation for them: they feel passionate on the topic, they have been asked by their day job to get involved, they need the reputation boost for their resume, their spouse asked them to do it… In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the motivation is, only that they have one, and so something that says, in the most positive and respectful manner possible, that you will impact their motivator is incredibly powerful. DO NOT DO THIS if you aren’t prepared to actually follow through.

There are, of course, more ways to motivate volunteers: work with them to make sure their requirements are being taken into consideration (feeling listened to is a powerful motivator in and of itself), make sure that people are recognized in whatever way they are most comfortable for their contributions, build a track record of success to keep up levels of excitement, etc. At the base of all of these, however, are thoughtful use of words to make your team want to work with you and your project.

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