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Volunteer Management and Environs

Volunteer Management and Environs
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    One of the things I spend a lot of time doing at my job in association management is getting volunteers to do things for free. Some people call it “volunteer management,” while other people call it herding cats. Still, the practice warrants some attention.

    Before we get started, let me explain why volunteer management is increasingly applicable. More and more, we’re seeing organizations shy away from traditional hierarchies. While this leads to more flexibility, it also puts the onus on individuals to contribute freely of their time while at work. Additionally, networking activities often revolve around volunteer activities. In my book, a volunteer is anyone who is willing to help you who isn’t obligated to do so. So knowing the basics of managing them is a good thing to know—and it will probably get lots more important in the coming years.

    In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know to manage volunteers:

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    Planning
    This is essential when working with volunteers. Lately, team-based styles and “agile development” have made the term a little icky. But you need to have at least an outline of what’s going to happen if you want people to contribute. Think about it: you have a couple hours a week to help a group with a project on a voluntary basis. The dude or dudette in charge says, “Will you do x for us?” Chances are, if you have time and know how you’ll do it.

    However, what if they say, “I was wondering if you would kind of figure out what needs to be done. You could talk to whats-his-name and then we’ll meet about it in six months,” you might find yourself making some lovely hair-washing excuses to get out of the job. Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think,” though applied to website usability, applies in spades to the practice of volunteer management. People will help you, just don’t make them carry the world on their shoulders if they’re not interested.

    Recruitment
    Recruitment is the simplest part. If you’re involved in something worthwhile and you make people feel useful, they will volunteer. If you’ve got a problem getting people to volunteer, here are some things that you can work on:

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    Did you actually ask? Surprisingly, people from all kinds of organizations could have volunteers out their ears if they would walk up to someone and say, “we need x, will you do it?” Try not to be shy about it. If the person isn’t interested they will tell you. But more often people will step up to the plate.

    Are you being a martyr? I’ve found that sometimes leaders, having been in place for a long time, identify unhealthily with the position. They then say the right things about wanting to step back but they do subconscious (benefit of the doubt) manipulation and never actually empower anyone to take over. The people who are being sort-of asked to volunteer realize they are sort-of being asked and decline, quite reasonably. So, if you are a martyr, take a deep breath and let go. If your organization is being run by a martyr, realize that fact and work with it. If people realize what’s going on, then this situation can be worked through.

    Not enough stakeholders, period? You have to have a certain core group in order to have enough volunteers to do anything. Voluntarism is an interesting statistical function, driven by self-selection—a small group of people do the work for the larger group (as indicated by the STP phenomenon: Same Ten People). If you don’t have enough people to generate the pool of volunteers, adjust your standards and do less. You’ll thank me for it.

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    Orientation and Training
    Volunteers have to know what they’re doing. They are not typically dumb or lazy, although we see that kind all over, don’t we? No, volunteers have very limited time. Remember, these people have 2.5 kids, a dog, and a business trip twice a month. So, they need to know, upfront, what you’re asking them to do.

    Some of the volunteer literature talks about having forms and policies, yada yada and blah blah blah. I take a minimalist approach on the forms and so forth. But you should make sure people know what their job is, and where it stops and ends boundary-wise, and what the timeframe is. If the job is simple and involves simple tasks, tell them. If it’s more complex and you need them to do some judgment calls, tell them that as well. As long as we all know, everything goes much more smoothly.

    Supervision and Evaluation
    I have to tell you about this one, although it could have some negative overtones. Basically, though, it’s very helpful. The leader—and remember this can be delegated—should sit down regularly (or telephone or IM) with the volunteer. Refer back to the agreements everyone’s made at the beginning, and just maintain singing from the same hymnsheet. That’s it. If you integrate regular debriefs, things will get lots better for everyone.

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    And finally…

    Recognition
    Remember, a volunteer doesn’t get paid with money. But they obviously need some kind of remuneration. Usually interaction with others, gaining important contacts, doing good in the world, these are things that make volunteers tick. But it’s important to give awards, praise people, give thank you notes, small things that help keep morale up when you’ve stayed up till 2 am preparing a committee report.

    These steps should help everyone with their volunteer activities, whether a leader or a volunteer, or both! Feel free to let me know in the comments what your experiences have been with volunteering–and what makes you volunteer or quit a group for whom you have volunteered.

    Nick Senzee works for a professional association in metro Washington, DC. You can find him online at Nick’s Book Blog.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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