The Project Notebook

What Can You Expect From a Bunch of Volunteers?

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It may not seem like you’re signing up for project management when you volunteer for a board of directors or for a committee chair position. Maybe it’s your child’s parent-teacher organization, a homeowners’ association board, or a community group. However, managing volunteer activities can be one of the most challenging, rewarding, and frustrating project management assignments that you will ever have.

When a volunteer organization does not perform acceptably, someone will say, “Well, what can you expect from a bunch of volunteers?” This attitude is nothing but an excuse in disguise. At the very least, this question sets the expectation that any volunteer project must be a second-rate, half-hearted effort. Yet a great many successful projects only get accomplished because of a dedicated, competent group of volunteers. On more than one occasion, my volunteer teams and I have agreed that no one could pay us enough money to compensate us adequately for what we have volunteered to do!

So what’s a project manager to do when the team is loosely organized and can leave whenever the “going gets tough”? First of all, the team needs to determine what the target goal(s) of the effort are (sound familiar?). In a volunteer situation this effort has special challenges in that each individual has his/her own unique perspective on the situation and the desired outcomes. Therefore, it is also necessary to determine why each person volunteered to be a part of the effort. The diverse reasons for volunteering yield different attitudes toward the project as a whole and toward the “work ethic” that is exhibited. Some possible reasons why people volunteer include the following:

• Belief in the cause or role of the volunteer organization. These folks will generally work hard, but the project management challenge is to keep them focused and moving in a single direction.
• Status. The volunteer organization has a prestigious image so participation of any nature will look good on a resume. These people want “visibility”.
• Networking. These volunteers only want to associate with someone who can do something for them.
• Intimidation. Someone badgered the person into volunteering. These folks are generally “short timers”.

There are a number of considerations to address when managing a volunteer project team. Since everyone on the team has many other priorities, the tasks and deliverables should be defined as small, highly tangible efforts. Early and frequent accomplishments keep people energized even when the project is lengthy. Focused use of email and “virtual” meetings can eliminate many face-to-face meetings. When there are meetings, input should be solicited for an agenda that is circulated in advance. Of course, the agenda should be followed to avoid the volunteer “trap” of multiple tangents and non-productive meetings. It is especially critical to quickly learn each volunteer’s strengths and level of commitment. Some people sign up for everything and do nothing. Others don’t sign up at all but want to “be asked”. And then there are those rare “jewels” who sign up, do the work and bring in their deliverables on time.

I have been blessed to chair several volunteer efforts with talented people. It is to these special individuals and to those of you who do volunteer effectively that I dedicate this article.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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