When a new volunteer joins a project, project managers receive an e-mail notification letting them know there’s a new member on the project. The initial role of the volunteer is "observer," and the new volunteer usually waits for some direction from the product manager. During this waiting period, observers usually
- are not aware that they can get involved in the project.
- are not aware of the opportunities to get involved.
- hesitate to get in touch with project leads because they don’t think their skills would be useful to the project.
Although observers do have more permissions -- they can view and comment on issues in JIRA, as well as download source code from Subversion -- volunteers are generally unaware of these autoprovisioned rights, and they tend to wait until invited to act. This period of waiting can extend indefinitely until the project manager reaches out to the observer with a welcome e-mail. Since many observers are too shy to reach out and make contact, it’s essential that product managers reach out and make first contact. Here are four guidelines for effectively welcoming and engaging new volunteers.
1. Respond promptly
The first step in writing an effective welcome e-mail is to respond promptly. Within a day of receiving the notification that someone joined your project, respond to the new volunteer. The more time you wait to respond, the more likely it is for volunteers to believe their efforts aren’t needed.
2. Get to know the volunteer
Once you initiate a dialogue with a volunteer, find out his or her background and skill level. A huge challenge in organizing volunteers is matching skillsets to tasks. If the volunteer doesn’t have the skills to complete a task, he or she won’t complete it. If the volunteer is overqualified for a task, it might not engage the volunteer. To understand the volunteer’s background and skillset, ask questions in your welcome e-mail such as the following:
- Can you introduce yourself a little to me?
- What’s your background and skill level in X?
- Have you ever done X before? If so, can you tell me about it?
With these questions, try to determine the volunteer’s skill level so that you can align them with the right project tasks.
3. Extend a personal invitation to act
After you get to know the volunteer better, extend a personal invitation to the volunteer to do something. For example, you could ask the volunteer to do the following:
- Tackle a specific task in JIRA
- Write an article for the wiki
- Provide e-mail support
- Critique a prototype
The key is to make this a personal invitation. If you simply say, check out the list of tasks in JIRA, most likely the volunteer won’t entirely understand what you want him or her to do. Invitations that are focused on a specific task are much more likely to be completed.
4. Establish a timeline for completion
Once the volunteer feels good about a task he or she agreed to complete, establish a timeline for it. Before you end the conversation, ask questions such as the following:
- Given your schedule, what timeline do you think would be feasible for you to complete this?
- So that I can keep organized, can you estimate when you think you’ll finish this task?
Make a note of this date and follow up with the volunteer on this date. After the volunteer finishes the task, thank the volunteer for their time and extend a new task.
The initial contact with the volunteer is crucial to establishing a pattern of engagement. All too often new volunteers are ignored, they wait indefinitely for invitations to act, and project managers become frustrated that tasks aren’t being completed. Implementing these four principles as you welcome and engage volunteers on your projects will lead to more productivity in your project as well as a better experience for the user.
Note: This article lives permanently on the LDSTech Project wiki. Visit the Welcoming and engaging new volunteers wiki page to make updates and other additions.