Where Did All the Energy Go? Working with Volunteers

Have you ever noticed how many people, at least in Western cultures, think money is kinda dirty? That there is some kind of nobility about working towards a greater good without monetary compensation? An idea that people spend time on only because they believe it is good, fun, or otherwise meets some kind of intrinsic need is an idea worth exploring.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

That said, intrinsic motivation for some amorphous award is really hard to stay energized about. Suppose an idea ends up taking years to reach fruition or, worse yet, turns into an operational workload that never ends. In that case, people will slowly drift away, either to look for the next thing that will tweak their dopamine levels or to focus on whatever brings more visible and immediate rewards.

Most of my work involves those marvelous people, those volunteers, who are willing to spend time on an idea without direct monetary compensation. Volunteers are the lifeblood of professional organizations, cross-industry collaborations, and so many more groups. Keeping them engaged for the long haul is really, really hard. And I have to admit it feels occasionally uncomfortable being a paid contractor for volunteer efforts. As it turns out, though, that’s one of the most powerful things to help volunteers be successful.

There’s a good reason for that, too. The trick to keeping volunteer groups engaged is that the effort has to meet some bar for “fun” and the group has to show progress. Having someone fill the roles of the project manager, the admin assistant, the facilitator/moderator, and the line manager for a group that probably doesn’t formally have any of those things is a Big Deal. In other words, having someone who will, come hell or high water, organize all the support work to make sure it happens when needed because their livelihood depends on it can make these kinds of groups do All The Things.

The secret sauce, though, outside of organizing All The Things, is to make sure that the work retains an element of fun for the volunteers. A dry rendition of a Gantt chart at each meeting is the anti-fun. A cheer about gold stars being awarded for work on time is far more entertaining (even better if you can actually hand them out). People HAVE to feel good about their participation, and that, more than anything else, is what an organizer like me must bring to the table.

Idea + Fun + Visible Progress = Volunteer Energy and Participation

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