5 guiding questions to help you support community volunteers

On 3 March 2022, CSCCE Director Lou Woodley gave an invited talk for the Code for Science & Society Digital Infrastructure Incubator about best practices when engaging volunteer labor. Her 60-minute session included opportunities for participants to reflect on their own work with community volunteers, and how they might refine the support they offer to them in the future. 

With so many community managers in STEM looking to mobilize community members in a volunteer capacity, we thought we’d share an overview of Lou’s “5 guiding questions” for supporting unpaid contributions. 

Photo by ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

1. Is the activity something that is appropriate for volunteer labor?

Before you ask a member of your community to take on a role in a volunteer capacity, it’s important to consider whether the activity is really appropriate for volunteer labor. There are various potential red flags here. For example, is it a task that ordinarily you’d pay a skilled technician to do, such as making updates to the style sheets underpinning your community website, but that you simply have no budget for? Similarly, expecting volunteers to do repetitive, mundane tasks with limited growth opportunities or that require large, inflexible time commitments may not be fair or appropriate choices for volunteer projects.

Finally, consider whether volunteer labor serves as a rite of passage to more visible leadership roles in your community. Is this codified? And is this unfairly restricting some members in accessing those leadership roles? 

2. What are the benefits to the volunteer?

Similarly, the project shouldn’t be a one way street with only the community or organization benefiting. There should be an obvious benefit for the volunteer, too. Some examples of volunteer benefits include:

  • Connection to others
  • Learning a new skill
  • Taking on a leadership role

Note that once you’ve identified what that benefit is, you can then consider simple ways to add value and amplify that benefit: 

  • E.g., if a member is looking for connection to others, creating a directory of volunteers, a back channel for volunteers or volunteer-only events may increase the likelihood that members find others to connect with.
  • E.g., if a member is taking on a leadership role for their own professional advancement, providing a certificate, qualification, or named position such as “Fellow” may support them in adding it to their resumé and communicating its value

3. Is there a larger, collective benefit?

Volunteer projects that are really engaging typically also add collective value, not only value to an individual volunteer. Indeed, in a survey of why community champions volunteer in their communities that the CEFP Busy Bees project team did in 2019, the number one motivator for volunteers was “contributing to the mission of the community.” 

Collective benefits might look like: 

  • Building a tool or shared resource that is made available to others and addresses a perceived important need
  • Supporting others in learning something you believe has transformative value 
  • Improving shared spaces 

4. Are you offering multi-modal ways for volunteers to participate?

CSCCE’s Community Participation Model highlights the importance of offering community members multiple ways to engage. Member engagement can ebb and flow, with members’ availability, energy, and enthusiasm for a project changing over time. Volunteer projects with multiple roles or modular pieces, matched to participant interest and ability, are more likely to succeed over the long term. Plus, making the different ways to engage clear upfront reduces any judgement when volunteers need to shift their engagement based on their fluctuating capacity.

5. Are you scaffolding the volunteer journey – including the ending?

Scaffolding is the supportive information, activities, and processes that address barriers to member participation and ensure that all members can access and engage in community programming (and you can download our guidebook on the topic here) – and that includes volunteers helping to advance community projects!

Scaffolding offers volunteers the support they need for their roles, allowing them to focus on what’s of most interest to them while also staying in alignment with the overall project needs. It might look like onboarding materials, participation requirements, reusable templates, style guides and playbooks. And don’t forget the offboarding process – saying thank you and making space for an exchange of knowledge gained can make for a more satisfying closure for both volunteers and community staff. 

A volunteer by any other name: Community Champions

The CSCCE Community Participation Model (which described four modes of engagement: CONVEY/CONSUME, CONTRIBUTE, COLLABORATE, and CO-CREATE) also describes a fifth meta-mode, the community CHAMPION. Champions “take on more responsibility for the success, sustainability, and/or running of the community. This might look like advocating for the community on social media, running a working group or local chapter, or taking the lead in creating and maintaining documentation to support the community.” 

Champions are often supported in communities through dedicated champions programs, which often offer training and recognition, thus meeting some of the volunteer needs highlighted above. If you’d like to learn more about how to support community champions, you can download our guidebook here. And, watch out for our series of tip sheets coming out later this month that dig into the practicalities of launching and running champions programs. 

Still want more? 

If you think this topic is particularly relevant to your organization and you’d like more information about hosting a similar webinar, please reach out to info@cscce.org