Many Volunteers with Raised Hands
We don’t generally think of corporations and government organizations as volunteer organizations, but stop and think about it. How much of where you allocate your own time is influenced by what you choose to do. Probably more than you’d like to admit. We seek to get on projects that interest us. In that way we are volunteering our time.
As a leader, you’re much more likely to get people to voluntarily contribute their time, skills and money if they can sign up to help achieve a targeted outcome rather than sign up to execute a project.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to speak to, and in some cases work with, the leaders of organizations that rely on volunteers to achieve their strategic goals. They’ve ranged in size from a single leader and advisory board for a professional services community (PSVillage), to a large open source application development group (WordPress), to the Department of Energy and a number of America’s largest energy firms. In each case we talked about what their goals were and how they were going about achieving them. In most cases they identified a series of projects that they wanted to get done. They also all had limited resources for the size of their targeted objectives. None of them had any way to ensure long-term commitment from participants. It would be huge value to them to be able to increase the level of volunteerism and sustained commitment to the targeted objectives.

Volunteers start with high energy and high estimates of the time and resources they commit to. Lack of progress, frustration and lack of control over their ability to achieve success cause their commitment to wither. As a result execution success is unpredictable. Leaders have to be ever optimistic and to some degree charismatic to continue to attract and retain volunteers. On the other hand, they also have to be realistic and level-headed to continuously deal with the logistics and disappointment of incomplete or missed commitments and execution failure.

What none of them had figured out was how to effectively connect willing contributors with what needs to be done. They had no effective way to connect resources to work, other than through identified projects. This isn’t very different than what occurs in any organization. The only difference is that in traditional organizations, managers direct their people to work. They too had been directed by higher-level managers and their performance objectives. The larger the organization, the more layers are involved. In volunteer or membership based organizations, the link between work and resources is mostly one to one. Each volunteer can decide for themselves where they’d like to participate.

The approaches taken by the organizations I spoke to were each project based. The leaders had defined the projects they felt were necessary. They identified them to their pool of potential volunteers in the hope that they would be taken up by a volunteer or member. I was able to work with the Department of Energy and the energy firms to shift their thinking first to outcomes and only then to projects. They were able to create a roadmap that all understood. There was a renewed commitment to a high-level targeted outcome. They developed a logical process for aligning volunteer activity to the most important interim outcomes. For the others, they will get great value if they can start to identify targeted outcomes and their linkage to higher level targeted outcomes.
This will provide volunteers and their organization with the ability to:

  • Understand which are the most important outcomes.
  • Choose or influence their participation in the outcomes that they are most attracted to and can achieve.
  • Understand how that contribution supports the highest level outcome of the organization.
  • Understand wider context through being aware of the surrounding targeted outcomes, and so cooperate on their achievement.
  • Use their own skills to design the project / actions necessary to achieve a targeted outcome.
  • Provide an opportunity for greater emotional investment and sense of achievement in reaching a targeted outcome.
  • Provide sustained commitment, to achieve various projects necessary to achieve a targeted outcome.

Sustained Commitment
For volunteer organizations, corporations, and governments you can increase the success level of execution by getting greater commitment to the most important outcomes and attract sustained participation. These are invaluable in all of these ‘volunteer’ organizations, just like the one you’re in.