Managing a Project with Volunteers Requires Heavy Motivational Skills; the Rewards Are Well Worth It
By Niels De Weyer, PMP
Professionally, I manage infrastructure projects in an IT environment. Outside my job, I'm responsible for the operations of an annual three-day international festival that draws about 13,000 visitors: the Scottish Weekend in Alden Biesen, Belgium. Together with the technical board and about 400 volunteers, we set up, run and clean up after the festival. I work as a volunteer, with other volunteers, and I have learned this type of event requires a completely different project management approach than my day job.
In a professional environment, a project manager defines the needed skill set and hires accordingly. With volunteers, you manage whoever else has volunteered, and it's up to you to assess them and to use their knowledge and expertise in the most efficient way.
People volunteer for a project because they are enthusiastic about the cause or event and want to put in the effort to make sure it's a success. However, volunteers don't want to be treated like an employee. That can be a fine line to walk as a project manager: You need to find a way to get the most from your team while still making them feel maximally appreciated and fulfilled. A few tips to do so:
INFORM THEM WELL
At work, you'd likely kick off a new project by explaining the strategy behind it and how the team's tasks will contribute to project success and the organization's strategic objectives. In the same way, start by sharing the big picture with your team of volunteers. Explain why they are needed and how their contributions are an indispensable part of the project's big picture. They need to understand both what work is needed and why.
Don't shy away from being explicit about exactly how much work is expected of them; it's better to have someone back out in the beginning than during the event. But to keep stoking their volunteer fire, connect that lengthy list of tasks to the overall goal.
ALLOW ROOM FOR THEIR IDEAS
During preparation meetings, I usually explain the general approach and ideas behind it. But I've also learned that it's worthwhile to solicit suggestions. With a volunteer crew, you may not know all of the capabilities and expertise at your disposal, and asking for input is an easy and efficient way to discover if a volunteer's unique suggestion might make quicker work of the tasks at hand.
But even if you're not met with a cascade of suggestions and ideas, creating space for the team's input is still valuable. It signals that you value the volunteers, which will motivate them even more.
GIVE ONGOING GUIDANCE
Everybody likes to know how they are doing, and it's a mistake to assume that volunteers won't want their work evaluated. Rather, you should be actively spotting and praising individual successes and offering constructive feedback when applicable.
You can't always be certain of volunteers' skills, and they aren't always certain that they're doing well. That's why you need to spend a lot of time guiding and coaching your team in a gentle way. During festival buildup, we get together for breakfast and lunch, after which I hold a short briefing. During these briefings, I explain all activities and confirm the teams that will execute them. This has all been explained before in detail during preparation meetings, but the follow-up is key to ensuring the information sticks.
Managing volunteers requires people skills, of course, but you also need to remember to use those skills even in the heat of the moment. Speaking tersely, not paying enough attention to a volunteer or other mistakes can lead to misunderstandings, frustrations and, worst case, volunteers leaving. My advice: Keep smiling. Your mood reflects on the people around you. And while the entire team may be squarely focused on the project's completion, you want to carve out time to celebrate the smaller milestones. Nurturing the team members' pride and sense of accomplishment can fuel their engagement, particularly for long-term initiatives that require endurance.
Motivating volunteers can help keep them coming back. If you're planning an annual event, it's important to have a core team of returning volunteers who know how it's done and can show new helpers.
It's impressive to see the Scottish Weekend spring to life. It takes nearly a year of planning and five days of setup, and lasts three days. Only a few days later, no trace of the festival remains, except in the minds of the satisfied guests and motivated volunteers. PM
Niels De Weyer, PMP, is head of operations at Ypto, as well as chairman of the technical board and member of the board of directors of the Scottish Weekend festival, Bilzen, Belgium.