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Managing 60 + Volunteer Writers

Nov 6, 2011 • general

Managing 60+ VolunteersAbout four months ago, I posted a call for volunteer writers who might be interested in helping out with the LDSTech blog. Since that time, about 60 volunteers have joined the project. Some are more enthusiastic than others, and some have more writing talent than others. It's not easy to determine talent and motivation based on signups alone. Some jump in eagerly right from the beginning; others lurk for weeks. Regardless of the variety of motivation, skills, and available time, one theme is constant: an overwhelming number of people are enthusiastic about volunteering.

The challenge, I've found, is figuring out how to harness this volunteer energy. I have about 90 topics to write about (which I list in the JIRA project for this work), but project management involves more than just assigning a topic to a volunteer. Many times the topics require some research and investigation. I may have a particular angle I want to take with the topic, one that's only fleshed out in my mind.

The topic may require me to find out who the subject matter expert is (in a large organization, this is no easy feat). It may require me to contact product owners to ask permission to write about the topic, as well as to gauge timing of the article's publication. I may need to interview people to get more information before even identifying the topic. There's also an element of follow-through. You have to set deadlines for drafts, or else the drafts are likely to linger for weeks without being finished.

Getting volunteers to write is only the first step. Another challenge is what to do with a draft that needs a lot of work. If the writing doesn't have enough information, or if it's clear that the writer is having trouble structuring the information or articulating concepts, fixing the draft can require a lot of work. Laying it to waste demotivates volunteer efforts, while fixing it can leave me working on the weekends.

There's also a need to give feedback to volunteer writers -- being tactful if the feedback is constructive, or mentoring if the volunteer is looking to learn from the opportunity.

I don't do a good job at all managing this project, since I am only engaging the most active volunteers at the moment. I guess I'm realizing just how much bandwidth it takes to manage remote volunteer writers.

Despite all of these challenges, it's invigorating to be in such a position. I've always been an individual contributor rather than a manager. Now I'm not only managing, but managing 60+ writers. The list of volunteers only grows larger each day. My project is actually small in comparison. Other community projects have 130+ volunteers, with multiple project managers.

Despite the challenges, I find the interaction somewhat invigorating and fun. It's new territory to be moving through. One day, I'll figure out the magic elixir of successful community project management. It may take years before that happens, since there's so much to learn. But one of these days, I will have 20+ engaged volunteers writing new articles every day. How will I keep up? I'll have to designate more project managers, and more editors. I suppose it all scales ... somehow.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical communication — Swagger, agile, trends, learning, plain language, quick reference guides, tech comm careers, academics, and more. I'm interested in simplifying complexity, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture and findability, and more. If you're a technical writer of any kind (progressional, transitioning, student), be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here. You can also contact me with questions.