Brainstorming Solutions to Volunteer Management/Engagement

I am constantly reflecting on the answer to this question: How can I draw upon the enthusiasm, intelligence, and skill of willing volunteers all around me to take our organization’s site to the next level? This goal mostly relates to my involvement in my organization’s technology blog, which has about 80 volunteer writers.

In my post about what I learned during 2011 as a technical communicator, I wrote:

Community collaboration is extremely tough to pull off. I can’t just assign a volunteer writer a topic and let them run with it. I usually have to either gather the information from a subject matter expert or connect the volunteer with a subject matter expert — and then see them through the process with more hand-holding than I want to provide. Still, community volunteers can generate momentum by the sheer number of assignments I have to follow through with. Overall, I have no idea how to engage community volunteers in an effective way, but I think I can eventually figure a strategy out. (See What I Learned About Tech Comm During 2011.)

In response to this post, Saul Carliner added the following insightful comment:

But the challenges of working with “volunteers,” is one that is rarely mentioned when discussing SME-authored and user-generated documentation. Having had worked with volunteers in a number of sectors over the years–from work-related ones to community ones–the issue of volunteer management is one that still challenges all of them. Incentives and clarity help, but not always in the way intended. Even in areas that have years of experience with volunteers, it’s more of an art than a science. Just because we’ve moved to community-based approaches to documentation and the wikipedia has been successful doesn’t mean that other ventures don’t involve nurturing.

The last sentence particularly stands out. Yes, many social ventures (such as Wikipedia and Digg) have been hugely successful. But that doesn’t mean applying the volunteer model to tech comm is a process or technique we understand. It’s an art, and one that most community managers still struggle to figure out.

The topic isn’t just limited to volunteer engagement. SME-authored documentation, as Saul mentions, also fits into this genre.

In a series of questions I responded to on Ugur Akinci’s blog, I reflected at length on what is the most significant change in the field of technical communication. It fits right in with collaborative efforts and social intelligence. Here’s an excerpt of my response:

QUESTION (3): What is the single most important change that you see in the technical communication sector since you first became a technical communicator?

… The greatest transformation yet to come is to drop the single-author paradigm of technical writing and to embrace the way information flows on the web. … For years help authoring has consisted of one person (or just a few people) writing help material. When content comes from one person, the content is usually limited in perspective, accuracy, and applicability. Writing needs to become much more collaborative, and not just from inside the corporation, but outside as well. Documentation is never finished. When I log off for the day, someone out there may be contributing to the documentation, making it evolve, adding sections, correcting errors, expanding on special cases, and so on.

It’s engaging to come into the office in the morning and review the latest changes to the wiki, to find that someone added a new section, or a new page. We no longer have documentation as static, standalone files that are written in haste by one technical writer and then “finished” as he or she moves to the next project. Documentation is a living, breathing body of information – like the web. The web is in constant flux. It’s full of a whole landscape of people – trolls, spammers, forum champions, lurkers, relentless volunteers, bloggers, programming whizzes. All of these people, like characters in a circus, come together on the same stage, interacting with each other in rich, multifaceted ways. Sometimes these interactions are exciting, other times they’re frustrating. But either way, documentation evolves to become more web-like in the ebb and flow of information.

This ebb and flow of information is what I find most rewarding about technical communication. Information no longer emanates from one source but rather connects into a greater body of people. This is the genius of the web. The web thrives because of this content interaction — one person building on the ideas of another in collaborative, interactive ways. (Read the full interview on Ugur Akinci’s blog.)

Let’s come back to the original question. How can you harness the enthusiasm and talent of volunteers in productive ways? The answer to this question wouldn’t just be a neat technique to enhance productivity; it would change everything about my job.

The problem is not content strategy; it’s content tactics. The strategy is clear: draw upon the talent and enthusiasm of willing volunteers to write high-quality content. The details of how remain a mystery. Let me continue my brainstorm.


Several main challenges make this a difficult problem:

  • Volunteer writers often don’t have the information necessary to write articles.
  • SMEs with the knowledge often don’t have the interest to write articles.
  • Content that volunteers write, even if informed, often needs significant editorial processing before it’s ready for publication.
  • Writing assignments often need more detail before you can assign them to volunteers. If you can only gather this information internally, it makes it difficult to assign to volunteers.
  • The remote distance between headquarters and volunteers makes collaboration and communication more difficult.

Known Principles that Work

Now that I’ve outlined the challenges, let me also outline what I’ve learned about volunteer engagement:

  • People are much more likely to accept invitations when invited on a personal level.
  • People are much more likely to accept invitations when they have a relationship of trust with you.
  • People need a clear understanding of what you want them to do.
  • People need deadlines to understand when you expect them to finish their assignments.
  • People need regular communication so that you can address issues and other concerns that might be obstacles.
  • Communicating on a personal level, building trust, establishing deadlines, providing detail, etc., takes significant management time.
  • People need opportunities to pursue their strengths. Not everyone is a creative writer. Many people function better as editors.
  • People need access to information, people, and meetings to write the content that is expected of them.
  • Content often goes through successive levels of edits before it’s ready for publication.
  • People have a limited amount of time to work on articles they are not getting paid for.
  • People like to feel that their contributions are valued, not wasted.
  • Coordinating, tracking, commenting, and following up on assignments for scores of volunteers requires an advanced system to manage all of this information.
  • People often want to get something in return for their volunteering, such as more experience, understanding, improvement, portfolio samples, and more.
  • People often overestimate their writing abilities.

Formulating a plan

I recognize that my brainstorming and analysis is specific to my own volunteer situation, and one situation may vary dramatically to the next. Hopefully the tactical plan I form may be of interest to others who work in other volunteer situations, even if the details vary. Given the challenges and known principles, what would work well for success?

Here’s are a few potential first steps:

Step 1. Create a body of work that volunteers can do. This means crafting assignments that are important and worthwhile. Creating a body of work may be the most difficult of all steps, as this requires me to add detail and potentially outlines to topics. Sometimes I may only have an idea for a story, or a name to contact, not an actual story in hand. But having a tenuous idea doesn’t work well for volunteers, who may be playing guessing games at what I want. The details of the assignments need to be clearly spelled out. Each writing assignment needs to have a basic level of clarity to be something that users can actually accomplish. Contact points, key messages for the article, length, tone, and other details should be clearly defined.

Step 2. Personally invite volunteers to act. The second step would be to personally invite volunteers to work on the tasks they’re assigned. The invitations should ensure that the writing assignment is a good fit for the volunteer (that is, matching the volunteer’s strengths and interests), that the volunteers have a good idea of what you expect, and the due date.

Step 3. Regularly review, track, and follow-up with assignments.  It would be a good idea to review all the items stored in the system (in my case, JIRA) on a daily basis so that I don’t let some assignments languish and become forgotten. Volunteers may run into insurmountable issues and challenges; they may realize the assignment isn’t a good fit for their interests. By following up and checking in regularly with volunteers, I also demonstrate the value and importance of the assignment.

Step 4. Have volunteers edit volunteer writing. This is one of the steps that I’ve never implemented, but it might be good to have volunteers edit other volunteers’ writing. Writing often needs successive levels of editorial review. I could provide some quick comments and feedback, and then either have the volunteer make revisions or pass it to another volunteer to make edits, and then potentially to another volunteer. This way by the time the writing falls on my desk, it’s already to a level that is near publication quality. In some situations, I could ask SMEs to write content and then pass it along to volunteer writers to edit.

Step 5. Communicate regularly. Without regular communication, people lose interest. They quickly drop off. The communication also helps build trust, and people may feel as if they’re learning more from discussions. It’s not possible to build a lively community without regular engagement through e-mail and other online interactions. Perhaps contributing an e-mail a day may go a long way toward building trust and helping volunteers feel that they’re getting a lot out of the experience.


No system works if one doesn’t use it. These five steps aren’t rocket science. I could probably have a decent amount of success implementing them. The problem is maintaining regular activity, sticking with the system week after week, especially when other, higher internal projects get in the way.  This is perhaps why breaking the tactics down to even a more concrete, daily to-do list might be a good idea.

I’m interested to hear what strategies you use for managing volunteer writers.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Mark Baker

    Tom, as I read through this, the one thought that struck me was this: the problem with managing volunteers is that you asked them to volunteer. By asking for volunteers you immediately put a filter on the people you will get — specifically, you get the people who like to volunteer for the sake of volunteering.

    Volunteer is almost a personality type. I do lots of things for free, but I never volunteer for anything. There is a world of difference between saying “X needs to be done”, and “we need a volunteer to do X”. The first phrase demand competence; the second demands only willingness to help and absolves the volunteer of all responsibility for quality or timely delivery. Working with volunteers is a thankless and frustrating job because volunteers validate their contributions on the mere fact of their having volunteered.

    People who work together on a project they care passionately about for its own sake don’t think of themselves as volunteers. They are as committed to the project and to each other far more than if they were being paid for it. A volunteer, by contrast, is doing it for the brownie points and is less committed than they would be to something they were being paid for.

    However, you don’t need to ask for volunteers to get writing done on the web. All you have to do is to provide a space for people to ask questions. People who have answers generally cannot resist demonstrating their knowledge to those who ask questions. (One of the great satisfactions of parenthood is that, for a while, you get to be a walking encyclopedia for your children.)

    In my recent post Social Media is not a Ship, it is the Ocean (, I made reference to David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, in which he points out that if you are dealing a new OS and you get an error message, all you have to do is to Google the text of the error message and you will get the fix. He recommends waiting a few weeks before installing an upgrade to give time for the solutions to all the error messages to appear on the Web.

    I phrased this as “wait[ing] for the net to populate itself”. I then wrote: “My choice of words here is deliberate — wait for the net to populate itself with answers — because no one plans this, no one owns or controls or moderates this, no one pays for this or decides if it should or should not happen.”

    On the net, you don’t need to ask for volunteers, or manage or coordinate their activities, you just need to create the conditions under which the net will populate itself with the content you need.

    • Tom Johnson

      Mark, thanks for taking the time to comment on this post about volunteer engagement/management. Your point about the volunteer personality types is well taken. Certainly there are many willing volunteers in spirit, but when the assignments get tough, they drop off quickly because they were perhaps not entirely dedicated to the cause (and can’t justify the time). But dismissing the idea of a volunteer isn’t always practical. Sometimes there’s work to be done, and it’s not always fun or even engaging.

      Re creating natural conditions under which volunteers will automatically create content, I’ve certainly seen this with our forum. Our forum has a steady stream of questions and answers. It hardly requires any input from internal employees. However, organizing this information into a format that is findable, well-structured, and professional takes a lot more time and energy, so typically the forum remains penetrable by search only. We do have a companion wiki next to our forum, but participation there is only a small fraction compared to the participation in the forum.

      • Mark Baker

        Hi Tom,

        I certainly agree that there are times when you have to call for volunteers. Sometimes there is dirty thankless work to be done and only the volunteer spirit is going to induce people to do it. Actually, I suspect that the true volunteer spirit, which is entirely admirable, is attracted specifically to the dirty thankless jobs that otherwise would not get done at all. I’m inclined to doubt that technical communication is quite dirty enough or thankless enough to evoke this spirit.

        My question — and it is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one, because I don’t think we know the answer, and we should — is whether it adds any real value to take information from forum posts and organize them and clean them up.

        – Does it make the information more findable? I’m inclined to doubt it. Most of the technical information I use these days comes from forum posts via Google. Forum posts seems to consistently rank above documentation in Google search results.

        – Does it make them more trusted (which is important, because people have to trust an answer before they are willing to act on it)? Again, I’m inclined to doubt it. Trust has gone social, and a forum provides a social context for information that helps the reader decide whether to trust the information or not. I’m not convinced that corporate polish conveys the same sense of trust that it use to.

        – Even if collecting and structuring community content could be shown to add value, does it add enough marginal value to justify the expense? How much more likely is the user to purchase or recommend your product if you take information that already exists and repackage it in another form?

        – For many products, on of the key reasons for buying is the strength of the user community for that product. Increasingly, people rely less on the manufacturer for support and guidance, and more on the community of fellow users. Some may see this as a failing on the manufacturers part, but I’m not sure that is the correct way of looking at it. Rather, I see this kind of partnership between the manufacturer and the user community as a key means for improving the product and reducing its cost. Building community may be a far more important role than taking content from the community and bringing it in house.

        Like I say, this is a question, not an assertion. But I think it is a question that has to be seriously asked.

  • Kristi

    I think Mark’s point is a great one, and it help address step 1: creating a body of work. Is it possible to delegate some of the idea generation to the community? What are their questions? Some might prefer to help prioritize and curate, just like some prefer to edit.

    Likewise, for step 4, can you crowdsource a styleguide, something to provide guidance? Maybe you could post a barebones draft that could be fine-tuned by the community. Also, do you have an idea of your minimum quality requirements? Crowdsourcing the styleguide could give you an idea of how much polish your readers expect.

    • Tom Johnson

      I like the bare-bones idea. I hadn’t thought of that, but it would be an interesting approach. After I create a general description of the assignment, it wouldn’t be hard to think of a general outline and list of key points to hit. Thanks for your insight.

  • Bridgette Begle

    Its a funny thing that asking someone to “volunteer” is kind of defeating the purpose t technical term of “volunteering”. Step 2 will ensure the job will be well done, or the best that can be done through the group of individuals that you have. I like this process and I think you 5 step procedure will work for you.

    • Tom Johnson

      Bridgette, thanks for your comments. Do you work with volunteers as well in your role? If so, I’d be interested to learn about the principles that work for your situation.