Friday, March 28, 2014

The volunteer projects

Some assembly required!

Does everyone recognize this as a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura, circa 1942? It's mission was coastal reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare, and light-duty bombing. The payload was a few small bombs, and the self-armament was a couple of machine guns in a top-side turret.

Restoring this aircraft -- as a museum queen -- is one of my volunteer projects. I'm not the "director of restoration", just one of the rivet guys -- and the not first to work on this. In fact, when we took the wing skin off to restore it, we found "Rosey's" signature inside, dated in 1942!
News you can use!
Volunteers are not paid staff -- no kidding! But... Actually, there's a lot to know about doing a project with volunteers because they're different from paid staff -- their training, motivation, accountability, commitment, and willingness to follow directions -- all different!

So, I've been reading the Kindle version of "Practical project management for agile non-profits" by Karen R. J. White. Her experience pretty much tracks with my own.

I recommend her book if you're getting into the volunteer thing. It's got a lot of stuff that is spot on.

What's important to know?
Write this down; you'll need it later:
  • They don't always show up, and they don't often give notice or reasons... just don't show
  • Virtual teams of volunteers are almost unthinkable. You've got to meet and greet in person.
  • If they do show up, they may leave at odd moments, right in the middle of something important, but not important enough to trump their need to leave
  • They can be territorial; prone to settle into something they like to do; and sometimes hostile to help or direction
  • But, if volunteers are working outside of their normal identity and comfort zone, they'll usually take direction readily if they perceive it's value-add. (I had not driven a rivet since 7th grade metal shop, so I needed some training!)
  • They're really not committed strategically to the host organization -- they don't get a paycheck, benefits, promotions, a corner office, or a place to hang out long term.
  • But, my experience is that volunteers can be very committed to organizational success for the project they are working on, putting in longer hours and working harder than the formal demands made by the project.
  • There's always the "faithful forty" as we say in the church volunteer project domain: they show up; work hard; get something out of it for themselves; and leave behind a good product.
  • Volunteer teams bond just like any other; leaders emerge like they always do; and sometimes there's an issue of dominance to be settled. Having a paycheck or not doesn't seem to alter these factors very much
  • Be aware that volunteers are grown children, sensitive to being played for an advantage since they often do not have access to senior paid management and organizational escalation and appeal. And, volunteers can be very sensitive to being the teacher's pet -- or not. Don't play favorites!
  • There's often an age difference, and an experience difference, that can be quite stunning: Seniors who were executives volunteer and are "supervised" by 20-somethings. And, the young supervisors need to be aware that age has a toll -- the older guys may move a little slower, etc.
  • Take care with obvious inefficiencies: the labor is cheap; there's more of it if you need it, so the pressure to be lean is much relaxed. Consequently, the overhead may be a lot higher and its impact not anticipated in the schedule.
  • Benchmarks attained with paid staff are often way too optimistic; see my points above about inefficiency, overhead, and commitment.
  • And, last but certainly not least: put away the jargon and speak in the local dialect. Volunteers may not be former pro's in the project domain; may not know the inside jokes and acronyms; and probably don't know the inside politics.

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Check out these books I've written in the library at Square Peg Consulting