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Motivating Volunteer Organizations

Excerpts from "It Takes an Individual, Building Effective Grass Roots Communities"

Why is it so difficult to get volunteer organizations to accomplish things?

The good news with volunteer organizations is that the members want to belong. Unfortunately, they do not always know what to do. In this paper we focus on three specific activities and try to set some guidelines for managing volunteer communities: Impact, Management and Frequency.

Impact: Since they are not being paid, impact must be made obvious. Volunteers join business organizations because they believe in the organization and want to have an impact. The fact that they agreed to give you their time in and of itself can be counted as a success. However, without the right motivation, many will drift away or even become bitter about the experience.

Following five simple steps help ensure that volunteers get back more than they put in.

  1. Set Objectives. What is the purpose of the organization?
  2. Define success. How will we know if we have succeeded?
  3. Create metrics. Can benchmarks be set for achievements?
  4. Publish results. Who needs to know what we have done?
  5. Discuss implications. Where can the process be improved?

Management: Volunteers are not employees or subordinates. Most will not respond well to edict or demands. The stronger the original motivation or opportunity for impact, the greater the need for leadership. Unmet expectations will fester and build resentment if not addressed. Management actions that absolutely destroy motivation are unilateralism, judgments, threats, strictness and impatience. In short, volunteers need leaders, not bosses or managers. Consider the following recommendations for managing motivation.

  1. Lighten up. Although serious about our motives and goals for participation in an organization, most of us have enough stress and negative input from our day jobs. Consider what you can do to make the process a bit more fun. Like a tragically flawed Greek God, don't accomplish miracles but alienate the team. The process is as important as the result.
  2. Facilitate. Brad Spencer, Managing Partner of Spencer Shenk Capers and Associates ( ), points out that out of the six dominant personalities, only one like to be told what to do. Chances are your volunteer is not part of that small segment of the population. As a leader, know your team, learn what they want to accomplish, and remove obstacles for them. Block for them and let them score the goal.
  3. Reward. Compensation is usually a combination of carrots and sticks. In a volunteer organization, sticks almost never work. A colleague of mine running a dot com company once commented to me that he had to learn a whole new set of management techniques to run his company because even the secretary was a millionaire (on paper). What can a leader do in an environment where the usual management tools of despotism and fear don't apply?
  4. Give Clarity. Let everyone know what success is by setting clear objectives. When you track and log accomplishments, you can motivate long lasting commitment.
  5. Opportunity. Every member of an organization needs a job. Community building is not a spectator sport. Each member gets out of the organization only what they put in. If they have no active role, they are wasting their own time and yours.

Frequency: Just as positive user experiences build brands (versus advertising), frequent interaction with volunteers builds community. Each positive interaction creates trust, respect and interdependence. Opportunities for interaction are myriad. E-mail, training, web chats, phone calls. Every contact can be quality contact. Remember, if it takes only three weeks to create a habit, your volunteer can habitually forget about you in just 21 days.

Assuming that your community already has members, motivational issues are critical. Problems arise when the objectives are not clear, members are not active and communication is too infrequent. Motivating volunteers is not about morale, but rather about interaction.

Scott Karren is the CEO of Channel Ventures, a specialized consulting firm that works with vendors and partners to build profitable channels. Mr. Karren has led his companies to successfully complete over 1,000 channel projects impacting over $150B of channel revenue.

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