Volunteering Equals Karma, Not Cash

One of the things I think we don’t do well sometimes – in generally – is set fair expectations with regards to volunteers on both sides. As the occasional leader of efforts that involve volunteers, what I ask for first is communication and follow through. Skill, energy and all the rest are useful, but good stuff can still happen if you communicate and if you follow through.

How much can you expect from a volunteer? It depends is the best answer, and it’s the same as when you look at someone on your team at work – how much can I give them? Will they grab it and go, will they need coaching, is there a 50% chance they’ll leave it to the last minute or worse? Volunteers need managing, but the style is different because they don’t get paid. You can’t yell at them, you can – sort of – fire them, but for me it’s hard to get upset at someone willing to work for free as long as they communicate. Even if they don’t, I own a portion of the responsibility and can’t blame them entirely if they go dark and don’t get something done.

Hopefully most will agree with that, though in practice it can be frustrating, and the temptation is to reduce risk by just doing it all yourself. Not smart, but tempting!

What should volunteers expect in return for their effort? What should we do for them in return? Should we give them gift cards? A chance to get a discounted or free entry to an event? Books? Let them earn points to redeem on various things?

For me, volunteering equals no pay. When I volunteer I do it because I want to, because I think it will be fun, because I will meet people that might be good to know, and to learn or use skills that I wouldn’t get to use otherwise. I expect whatever support is needed to go along with the task, and a thank you at the end. A follow up email or a card in the mail makes my day, or a nice certificate that maybe I’ll hang up at work. A small inexpensive gift is nice. Providing lunch or covering travel expenses is nice (even important) but that’s about as far as you need to go.

Note that there is a difference when you spend money on gifts that are also marketing or other messaging. Speaker shirts at SQLSaturday are one example. It’s a way to recognize their efforts, it’s also a way to help others find them in the crowd, but it’s also marketing. Nothing wrong with having multiple reasons for doing it, it’s still a nice gift.

Volunteers can get a lot of out their experience if they or you work at it. Make sure they meet some people, make sure they try new things (and get feedback), try to make it fun, let them solve it their way if you can. Say thank you publicly and privately and know that you’ve held up your end of the relationship fairly.

Don’t turn volunteerism into working for $6 an hour. Don’t turn volunteering into ‘what’s in it for me’. Don’t feel bad about asking them to volunteer their time, because they do get something out of it, it’s just not cash or the equivalent. Ask people to contribute their time to something you think is worthwhile and if you make a good case, they’ll say yes.