Ups and Downs of Managing Volunteer Projects

This is a guest article by Glevys Rondon. Glevys worked for over two decades as director and founder at the Latin American American Mining Monitoring Programme, an international organisation based in London aiming to empower and improve the lives of women affected by mining in rural Latin America.

For decades I managed projects spread across several countries. I used to envy colleagues managing projects in companies where everything seemed to run smoothly. In my darkest moments I pitied myself because my projects were made up of busy volunteers, members of grass-root organisations who, although passionately committed to the goal of providing community solutions to global warming, also had to juggle their daily jobs and home responsibilities. Time for the project was scarce. Given this constraint, planning activities and setting dates for their implementations was the source of endless queries and discussions.

Very early on in the project I became aware that volunteers’ time restrictions had a considerable impact not only on what we could achieve but fundamentally on the long-term survival of the group. A critical challenge, because without grass-root organisations there was no project. Boosting volunteers engagement was difficult because those who worked hard felt the success of the project was on their shoulders. This in turn, fuelled tensions regarding who had the the right to remain involved with the group and although a convenient narrative, the assumption that as direct beneficiaries of the project, volunteers would find time to implement activities exposed an underlying weakness in the project design. Recruiting new volunteers and creating the conditions for their participation was not part of the original scope of the project but it was a first step towards its success. Enabling groups to find out what motivated volunteers and how they were dealing with the project’s shortcomings through internal reflection, debate and analysis was another step in the right direction. This process of building team resilience enabled volunteers to gain new strengths and give new shared meanings to the corrosive feeling of failure that spread across groups whenever challenges appeared to be insurmountable.

The misconception that management of a project led by volunteers is less demanding than those in the corporative sector was never more evident that when I had to write reports to funders. Weekly monitoring of the project became one of the tasks that I feared most given that often volunteers did not feel personally committed to work assigned to them. Creating a culture of accountability in the team became critical for the long term financial sustainability of the project. My predicament was that retaining investors’ interest and financial contributions depended to a large extent in management being able to weave a constant thread of messages and reports that showed that volunteers on the ground were able to produced facts and figures regarding project implementation as well as indicators of perceived benefits for the community.

How did I overcome these obstacles and what lessons did I learn? To begin with I added to the project’s working agenda a programme of social, enjoyable visits to beautiful spots threatened by global warming. The objective was to help volunteers to build a global picture of what they wanted to achieve with the project. Once volunteers had a clear vision of the problems they had to tackle and the project’s contribution to the alleviation of these problems it was relatively easy to make a connexion between the delivery of activities and the success of the project. Some activities produced amazing results. Although a demanding chore, house to house visits contributed to raising awareness among different community sectors of the need to support volunteers’ efforts to influence policies at the local level. Gradual increase in the number of people who attended public events and/or signed letters to councillors was a sure indicator that volunteers were achieving milestones, which like magic, increased satisfaction with their own work.

At the end of each social visit hand painted posters depicting what the team wanted to achieve were hung on office walls. The poster became reminders of what would happen to the environment if the project did not succeed. Press conferences in which volunteers took turns to stand up, lead and explain the project’s short and long term objectives were organised on a regular basis. In addition, focused-group sessions were used to identify what was going wrong with the team and what were its strengths, what tasks generated stress because they were perceived as difficult and what benefits the project brought in at the personal level. The latter helped management to identify that attending national and international meetings and speaking at these events was perceived as a reward and an indicator of members’ value and prestige within the team and that many members felt excluded from the decision making process. Over time, following processes were not longer perceived as a management imposition but a roadmap for the success of the project.

Enabling volunteers to understand and accept the importance of adhering to key processes as well as encouraging them to lead during public events gave me not only better control of the project but helped tremendously in my efforts to increase engagement and communication with sponsors. That volunteers had embraced accountability was confirmed during the external evaluation carried out at the end of the project, three years later. All members selected by the evaluator agreed to speak and did not object to interviews taking place in the evenings. The evaluation highlighted high level of personal commitment and satisfaction among volunteers as well as their willingness to remain involved in community projects. The fact that in spite of an initial paralysis the project not only retained all initial groups but new ones were added contributed to the appreciation that the project had been a success at many levels. These finding reflected well with funders, as success of environmental projects is measured not just in terms of achieving direct objectives but fundamentally on beneficiaries capacity to continuing advancing their mission once the project has finished.

Managing this project taught me that like business corporations, voluntary organisations face and overcome complex challenges almost daily and that as usually happens it was my luck that I had encountered more than my fair share of obstacles during the life of the project; from a design that underestimated external and internal risks and minimised the impact of competing for scarce resources to the challenges of finding new volunteers and retaining them in spite of frequent internal conflict.

It is widely accepted that not-for-profit projects led by volunteers are an essential part of efforts to increase communities’ capacity to respond to and recover from a range of major disasters linked to global warming. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Therefore, strengthening grass-roots organisations’ capacities to build resilience in the face of environmental challenges is of great importance for the well-being of rural people. As already discussed such projects confront managers with many challenges requiring a great deal of flexibility and innovation. My experience showed that whether the team is made up of paid workers or volunteers from community groups the success of any project is a complex experience that demands from its members ownership of goals and objectives as well as the will power and determination to succeed.

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