Motivating volunteers - the open source software example

We’ve recently establish a board to oversee the Vision 100 IT Team, that provides websites, email lists, and other tech support to churches in The Vision 100 Network here in Tasmania.

At our meeting the other morning, Jason presented a discussion paper of bullet point thoughts about how to motivate volunteers. He was particularly drawing on experience of those who have worked in the Open Source software world.

The three big take-homes for me were the need for:

  1. Social cohesion

  2. Management

  3. Passion - both about the big vision of what hope to do, and about the particular product/tool we are working on

Here ‘tis:

Maintaining the passion and commitment of volunteers, amongst busy lives. Finding confidence in task delegation, completion, and quality.

There is nothing fun about dry, boring IT maintenance tasks. The tasks themselves cannot be relied upon to drive a volunteer to completion, they are often done out of an unfortunate sense of obligation. The Vision 100 IT Board needs to find a method for empowering volunteers in the completion of their tasks, and to drive home the fact that their work is a service to the body of Christ.

The Open Source community is a key case study for this paper, as it resembles—on a much larger scale—our own IT team’s volunteer pool. There are, however, some differences. The Open Source community is driven by passionate volunteers. Passionate about the project itself, how it is going to change the landscape of the area into which it is deployed, passionate about the political, ethical, and social advantages of Open Source software, they want to produce good software, good code, they want to challenge and educate themselves by solving hard problems.

Key Points

  • Be warned: Thinking seriously about the why often leads to changing what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it.

  • Humans have a built-in desire to work with other humans, and to give and earn respect through cooperative activities.

  • Groups engaged in cooperative activities must evolve norms of behaviour, such as status acquired and kept through actions that help the group’s goals.

  • People are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Delegation is not just a way to spread the work around; it is also a political and social tool.

  • What happens when you ask someone to do something? The job is done by someone that is not you, and they are made aware of the fact that you have trusted them to do it.

  • Tasks that are assigned in a public forum come with an added social and political pressure to perform.

  • Publically assigned tasks come with a pressure to accept, necessitating a method for graceful refusal.

  • Tasks that are assigned which require the involvement of others effectively transfers some amount of managerial control and responsibility. May have an opportunity to become a source of authority on a particular subject.

  • This added engagement may be daunting, or it could be exactly what that volunteer needs to become more engaged with the project/team.

  • Choosing not to delegate a task comes with an opportunity cost; the above opportunities are closed to other members of the team.

  • Volunteering for work that someone else doesn’t want to do immediately gains you goodwill, respect, and thanks.

  • Delegation and substitution are not just about getting individual tasks done, they’re also about drawing people into a closer commitment to the project.

  • Distinguish clearly between inquiry and assignment.

  • Asking someone to do something in a way that implies that it is their responsibility to do it, when they feel otherwise, is a short path to frustration and annoyance.

  • When you ask someone to do something, remember that you have done so, and follow up with them no matter what.

  • Having their interests and skills/gifts noticed makes people happy.

  • Praise and criticism are not opposites; both are forms of attention and are best applied specifically, rather than generally. Both should be applied with concrete goals in mind.

  • Praise and criticism are diluted by inflation: Praise too much and you will devalue your praise, past and future. This is also true for criticism, though criticism is usually reactive, and therefore more resistant to devaluation.

  • Criticism should be detailed and dispassionate, focused on the work, and free of generalisations that could be misconstrued as criticisms of character.

  • If someone doesn’t improve in response to criticism, the solution is not more or stronger criticism. Better to transition a person into a role that they are less likely to fail.

  • Find ways for those that are critical of themselves to find jobs that they are good at in order to foster a sense of self-satisfaction.

  • Identify contributors that are burning out, or begrudging. Give them a break for a while.

Contributors need to feel that if they can see a problem, they have a way to fix it, or are at least able to provide adequate and constructive feedback in order to have it fixed.

  • Focus on describing outcomes, rather than how to get there.

  • Be clear on why a task exists. What prompted its creation?

  • Praise is a tool, and should be carefully applied. Ask yourself why you want to praise someone.

  • Repeated praise for for normal behaviour gradually becomes meaningless. Reserve praise for unusual or unexpected efforts, with the intention of spurring them on to more such efforts.

  • Praise should also be used to ensure that participants do not feel underappreciated, where necessary.

  • This isn’t to say that contributions shouldn’t be acknowledged, but a project that is set up well will ensure that everyone is aware of other people’s achievements.

  • Praise can also be given indirectly by mentioning it in passing while discussing a related topic.

  • High-value contributors will know how valuable their work is, and shouldn’t need constant bolstering in praise. This could be a sign of a deeper dissatisfaction.

  • Systems should be in place that show contributors how well they’re performing.

  • Give contributors the tools they need to protect their spare time from other things. Teach them to prioritise the IT Team as a ministry they’ve already committed to.

  • How does Vision 100 IT Team volunteer retention compare to that of other volunteer roles? How do they keep their volunteers interested?

It’s a way to be in partnership with Jesus Christ in his work in bringing about his kingdom. It’s tedious and largely thankless for now, but perhaps one day he’ll say “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter your master’s joy.” —Jonathan Lange. (see also his software blog, which I don’t understand)


Jonathan Lange’s brain

Karl Fogel - Managing Volunteers (Chapter 8)

The surprising science of motivation - Dan Pink TED Talk

via Blog - Christian Reflections (NB: to comment go to