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Recruiting, motivating, and keeping volunteers in an online community

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

Wikipedia got lucky.

Wikipedia was in the right time at the right place.

You’re not Wikipedia. The stars won’t align for you. Thousands of volunteers won’t decide to help you with your community project. You’re going to struggle.

You’re going to focus on getting your first volunteers and then a few more.

You’re going to master the motivations of volunteers, craft specific roles, and retain the volunteers you have for the long term.

What motivates volunteers?

Volunteers are motivated by one of four things:

1) Power/influence/efficacy.
Many volunteers are driven by the need to have an impact upon their surroundings. This is the efficacy factor. They need to feel power over their environment or other people.

2) Recognition/appreciation/self-validation.
Some volunteers are driven by the need to be recognized and appreciated by others. This is often referred to as a form of self-validation. People contribute to seek positive opinions of themselves from those they
consider their peers. If you contribute a great piece of advice, someone might declare you an expert on that topic.

3) Commitment to a friend.
Many people volunteer because they have a commitment to a friend/acquaintance already involved in the cause. How many people have you sponsored to do a run or activity for charity?

4) Commitment to the cause.
A few volunteers are motivated by the cause/goal itself. They help out because they want to support the cause of the community.

The top two are typically bigger and more reliable draws than the bottom two. Curiously, most volunteer recruitment focuses on the latter.

What volunteers can do in communities

Volunteers can typically undertake a variety of the following activities:

  • Content creating/editing
  • Initiating and sustaining discussions
  • Moderating activities/removing spam etc…
  • Platform maintenance
  • Organizing/supporting community events and activities
  • Welcoming newcomers and building relationships with key members
  • Training and supporting other volunteers

This isn’t an extensive list. Communities relating a particular crowdsourcing effort (e.g. Wikipedia volunteers) will have more specific tasks, others will have a broader array of activities.

Recruiting volunteers

There are four effective ways to recruit volunteers.

1) Headhunt specific people.
Find people with unique skills, knowledge, experience, or passion and persuade them to become volunteers. These are people that can specifically add unique value to the community as opposed to those whom take on simpler, process-orientated tasks.

2) Target existing contributors.
Find people that have made an above average contribution to the community, or a number of contributions, and persuade them to become volunteers.

3) Soliciting applications.
You call for people to apply for positions. This gives higher prestige to the positions being advertised. Don’t let anyone volunteer, pick from the best. The more exclusive, the more people are keen to do it.

4)Invite people to pledge a contribution based upon their skills. This is known as the ABCD approach (asset-based community development). It asks people to highlight what skills they can contribute to
the community and then encourages them to pledge those skills to specific tasks within the community.

Avoid calling for more volunteers. This rarely attracts a large number of volunteers. It can highlight a lack of
momentum for the project and decrease motivation from existing volunteers.

Developing volunteer roles

Develop volunteer roles which combine the unpopular, repetitive, tasks with those that are exciting and offer elements of power/fame.

Develop specific roles for volunteers based around what they’re doing already or what they would most like to do. Too many communities try to dump all their dull tasks onto passionate helpers. This achieves nothing.

It’s far easier to recruit volunteers for a role that has:

a) A specific name

b) Power elements (organizing events, admin privileges, unique access)

c) Recognition elements (creating content, opinion columns, listing on the site, public gratitude)

d) Functional elements (checking forums, removing spam, contributing content)

e) Clear area of responsibility (for a specific topic/category/area of the site)

Retaining volunteers

To retain volunteers, you need to build a sense of community amongst volunteers. You need the commitment of volunteers to switch from commitment from the cause or to a single person to a commitment to the group and a continuance commitment.

We’ve covered this before, this essentially means the following:

1) Ensure the volunteers frequently interact with each other.

2) Highlight the history and progress made by volunteers. It’s crucial to track progress on a week by week basis, not on a broad annual basis. 

3) Provide volunteers with further influence within the volunteer group.

4) Allow off-topic discussions between volunteers to facilitate group bonding.

None of this is easy to do. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to recruit a core group of volunteers to help run the community. Yet, in the long-term, every community is going to need a core group of volunteers to
sustain itself.

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