November’s community call recap: Community managers share their strategies for engaging volunteers

For our November call, the theme was working with volunteers. Yanina Bellini Saibene (rOpenSci) moderated a discussion between Saranjeet Kaur (RSE Asia Association) and Melissa Mendonça (NumPy, SciPy, Matplotlib, and Pandas) with brief comments from Yared Abera Ergu (The Carpentries in Africa). The panelists addressed a range of topics including:

  • The types of volunteer positions available in their communities
  • What motivates their volunteers
  • Problems with common approaches to volunteer labor and potential solutions

In this blog post, we provide brief descriptions of the panelists’ and facilitator’s backgrounds and summarize their thoughts on these three topics.

Panelist and Facilitator Backgrounds

Melissa Mendonça is a Brazilian mathematician and computer scientist. She completed her formal education in mathematics at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, then went on to work as a professor at the same institution. Two years ago, she left academics to focus on open source software. Currently she works primarily on the Python package NumPy, while also saving time for the packages SciPy, Matplotlib, and Pandas. 

Saranjeet Kaur is a statistician and open source and open science advocate based in India. She has a Masters degree in Statistics from University of Pune and is a Technical Writer of the R Development Guide. Throughout her career, she’s been involved with a number of software engineering communities and has been selected in open source programs like Google Summer of Code 2020, Digital Infrastructure Incubator 2021 by Code for Science and Society, and Google Season of Docs 2022. In 2021, she took part in the Open Life Science program (cohort-4), during which she co-founded the Research Software Engineering (RSE) Asia Association.

Yared Abera Ergu is an Information Technology specialist based in Ethiopia. He trained at Wollega University before becoming a lecturer at Mizan-Tepi University and later at Ambo University. He has served as Director of Library and Documentation Service at Mizan-Tepi University. Currently, he is working as Dean, School of Technology and Informatics at Ambo University. Five years ago, he became an instructor for The Carpentries in Africa, and more recently he took on an additional role as a trainer for new instructors. He is also a certified Higher Education Leadership Training Trainer at the Ethiopian Higher Education Institution, and a member of the Instructor Development Committee and Library Carpentry Advisory Group.

Yanina Bellini Saibene is an educator, community builder, and researcher based in Argentina. She trained at the Universidad del Salvador and Universidad Austral, Buenos Aires, before becoming a professor at Universidad Nacional Guillermo Brown. She has been a member of many software engineering and education communities throughout her career and is currently the community manager for rOpenSci and the R-Ladies project lead.

Clockwise from top left: Saranjeet Kaur, Yanina Bellini Saibene, Yared Abera Ergu, and Melissa Mendonça. Image credit: CSCCE

How volunteers contribute to open source communities

RSE Asia offers two ways for volunteers to become involved: They can take on champion-like roles called “national representatives,” through which they promote the organization’s goals in their home countries, or they can join the code of conduct team. Each year, volunteers are given the opportunity to step down from their roles or switch to the other form of volunteering. Members of the community are also welcome to propose new volunteer roles, and the organization will consider instating them. Saranjeet emphasized that she does not like to onboard volunteers without having a firm idea of how they will contribute to the community.

Melissa has encountered a wide range of ways that volunteers can contribute to open source projects. Many volunteers create or improve tools or libraries. Others help document these tools, handle social media, write grants, help with marketing, develop websites, organize contributor meetings, add captions and translations to videos, or translate other materials. 

Volunteer motivation

Many volunteers are hoping to build connections with others in their fields, Saranjeet said. Therefore, it’s helpful when community managers introduce volunteers to the people in their networks. Especially with more and more interaction taking place online, a volunteer position can be a gateway to connections all around the world.

Professional development motivates a lot of volunteers in the open source community, Melissa added. Many people are hoping to increase their contribution stats on GitHub and/or to gain experience that they can list on their resumés. Other people join because they’re hoping to improve their coding skills by getting code reviews from more experienced software developers. Some people join the community because they want to improve a particular tool that they use frequently in their research. And some people join because they’re looking for a community to connect with.

Watch the conversation in full 

Problems with volunteer expectations and potential solutions

The panelists highlighted three problems that often arise with volunteer opportunities:

  1. Volunteer positions are only accessible to people who can afford to give their time away
  2. Non-technical roles are not always valued as highly as technical roles
  3. Organizations lack smooth offboarding processes, which creates a lack of continuity between volunteers

Accessibility

Especially in the global south, few people can afford to give their time away, Melissa pointed out. This is perhaps partly why so many people come to open source communities hoping to gain skills and GitHub stats that will help advance their careers. Sometimes participating in open source projects for professional gain is seen as selfish, Melissa said, but for many people getting something back from the experience is vital. Volunteer coordinators should keep such needs in mind and look for opportunities to provide professional development opportunities, she said.

Equity across volunteer roles

Contributions of code are often recorded (and rewarded) in the form of GitHub stats or similar metrics, Melissa said. If non-technical contributions, such as running a social media account or writing a grant, were recorded similarly, these sorts of tasks might be seen as having equal value. As it is, such jobs are often considered less appealing. But working out a system for offering recognition for non-technical contributions comes with complications. For example, how does translating a resource stack up against fixing a bug when it comes time to quantify contributions? It’s a problem that warrants consideration, Melissa said. Saranjeet added that perhaps adding a new form of recognition to GitHub, such as badges, could help.

The panelists warned against trying to offer money or swag as rewards for volunteers in the global south. Transferring money internationally is often fraught with technical headaches, and packages often get stuck in customs.

Offboarding processes

A volunteer opportunity should not feel like a lifetime commitment, the panelists all agreed. To avoid this, Saranjeet recommended that communities put as much emphasis on the offboarding process as the onboarding process. If volunteers feel like there’s a respectful way for them to leave the community, without losing friendships or burning bridges, they’ll be more comfortable contributing their time in the first place.

Thorough documentation helps volunteers transfer responsibilities, Melissa added. If passwords, protocols, and notes are clearly organized, then one volunteer can easily hand the reins over to the next. Giving volunteers annual opportunities to step down or change their role can also help prevent people from drifting away from communities without communicating about their intention to leave, Saranjeet added.

Further reading

If you’re interested in going deeper into this topic, here are some resources that were shared during the call: 

What is Open Source for Social Good and Why People Contribute?. Denae Ford. https://blog.denaeford.me/2022/10/25/what-is-open-source-for-social-good-and-why-people-contribute/ 

Dan Sholler, Igor Steinmacher, Denae Ford, Mara Averick, Mike Hoye, and Greg Wilson: “Ten Simple Rules for Helping Newcomers Become Contributors to Open Projects”. https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007296 

5 guiding questions to help you support community volunteers. A short summary of a talk given by Lou Woodley for Code for Science & Society’s Digital Infrastructure Incubator. 

Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2021) The CSCCE Community Participation Model – Exploring the Champion mode. Woodley and Pratt doi: 10.5281/zenodo.5275270

You can also find nine tip sheets to guide you through the process of setting up and running a champions program for volunteers on the CSCCE website.

Thank you! 

We are very grateful to Yani’s many contributions to this call. She not only moderated the conversation, but also worked with CSCCE’s Katie Pratt and Saima Sidik to put together the agenda and topics. 

A big thank you also to our three panelists; Saranjeet, Melissa, and Yared. While Yared was only able to join briefly in the end, it was enlightening to hear from around the world the ways volunteers are able to participate and the value of different rewards and recognition. 

And lastly, thank you to everyone who joined the call and contributed to the lively conversation in chat! We hope you’ll join us in December for our annual community potluck (more information is here), and we’ll be back with more programming in the New Year.

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