Theories of time management for volunteers
August 30, 2014 7:10 AM   Subscribe

How can our organization stop people from feeling simultaneously guilty and oversubscribed?

I'm a member of a newly formed activist group on campus. Here is a thing that happens nearly every week:

I get ready to go to our meeting. I have a vague sense of how busy the upcoming week is, and an even vaguer sense of how much time I have to commit to group activities. Say this week it's 10 hours. I go to our meeting, and various projects are proposed (tabling, research, etc.). I volunteer my time for those projects until it seems like I've committed to approximately 10 hours of work, and then I stop raising my hand.

However, projects keep being proposed, and other activists keep volunteering for them, and soon it seems like the person sitting next to me is volunteering *way* more time than me - say, 20 hours - and they are feeling overwhelmed. "Can't someone please help me out with this?" they plead. I feel guilty, so I raise my hand and volunteer an extra two hours of my time, which isn't quite enough, but is still more than I meant to commit - so I leave the meeting feeling simultaneously guilty (because I know my friend is taking on more than her fair share of the burden) and stressed out (because I'm taking on more than I intended to.) If this continues to happen, the negative feelings ratchet upward, and soon I start avoiding meetings, either because I'm doing too much and I'm burning out, or I'm doing too little and going to meetings makes me feel guilty. The problem isn't so much that the work is distributed unevenly, which seems inevitable, but that people are, for various reasons, feeling obligated to do more work than they want to do -- there's an absence of both clarity and control.

I have some ideas about how to solve this problem, but it seems to me that this must be a problem that plagues every single group that depends on people volunteering their time, and I'm curious about what kind of accepted solutions are out there. I'm planning to present on the topic next week, and ideally I'd like to discuss suggest multiple possible approaches.

1. Is there a keyword or phrase that is used to describe this problem that I could use to do some research on it? I think it'd be cool to mix in some management "theory" along with practical suggestions.

2. Do you have solutions to this problem that can work for groups without an established hierarchy/leadership? I'd be particularly interested in solutions that worked for groups like Occupy.

Thanks so much!
posted by pretentious illiterate to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have led a number of volunteer groups over the years. Let me tell you a few things I know to be true:

A) Groups routinely try to engage in too many projects.

B) People who volunteer for everything are completely full of shit.

The people who are making you feel bad for not volunteering enough are likely not going to show up to even half of the projects they said they would show up for. Sure, there may be a small few who are amazing activist juggernauts who actually do care and do show up for everything, but those are few and far between. For the most part, the people who over volunteer are also the people who have something "just come up" at the last minute or who slept through their alarm that morning or have a family emergency or etc etc etc. I have seen it dozens of times.

For the group, you need an executive board. A group of people who will meet regularly, outside of the larger volunteer group meetings, to prioritize projects. This group needs to pick maybe two or three things a semester, decide how many volunteers to allocate to each, and not let everyone have their pet project. That way lies disaster. It'll lead to volunteer fatigue and 0 interested volunteers by the end of the semester.

So in short:

-Volunteer as much as you can for the projects you're passionate about, do not let peer pressure make you feel bad.

-That group needs to be MUCH better organized.
posted by phunniemee at 7:22 AM on August 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don't know technical terms to search, but I would have the group follow a pattern at each meeting, such as (1) brainstorm ideas for the week, (2) prioritize those ideas in terms of feasibility and time sensitivity [maybe talk about time requirements here], (3) choose priority activities for the week [using a maximum volunteer hours to cut off the list], and ONLY THEN (4) volunteer for roles.

I've been in groups like this and it's frustrating to volunteer for an idea early in the meeting only to hear a good idea later I'd rather work on. Everyone will be happier if they know what they are choosing between from the outset.

The order of events I outlined above does not require someone to be in charge; it just requires everyone to agree on a process and reach agreements on priorities. You could also use concepts like Covey's Important/Urgent quadrant organizers to decide which ideas to act on.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:29 AM on August 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

N'thimg phunniemee - is their no prioritisation happening? Why are so many projects being proposed and volunteering happening immediately at each meeting? Are you following any structure in these meetings? When I chair meetings I have all the projects proposed, debated/fleshed out with goals and expectations and timelines clearly laid out, prioritized with the group by making sure the proposed projects move our larger goal forward. THEN the projects are listed and people can volunteer for what they want. And this doesn't happen at each meeting - the current projects need to have a 360 review to make sure we can get best practices from them and make sure what we thought would align with our goals really happened.
posted by saucysault at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2014

Definitely an executive board, AND a fixed timeframe for proposing and initiating new projects.

Any new projects are collected, reviewed, and organized, say, once a year - twice at the most. And NO project moves forward unless a definite chairperson is identified. You put out a call for chairpeople at the review stage, then a general call for volunteers once everything is decided.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:41 AM on August 30, 2014

If you're specifically looking for solutions that don't involve establishing a hierarchy, then setting up an executive board probably isn't going to be appealing.

parkerjackson's method above is simple and practical, and doesn't require formal leadership. You'll need a big whiteboard or flipcharts or something where you can write stuff down and everyone can see it. That is a critical part of the process - people have to be able to see what you are talking about as you move through the process.

You could also look into Agile project management, which uses a similar method of identifying issues, prioritizing, defining tasks, and assigning work based on actual availability of resources.

There isn't a ton of management theory on non-hierarchical groups, since most management is by definition hierarchical. You might look for information on self-directed teams, though. That's probably a good entry point for learning about effective brainstorming and group consensus techniques.
posted by jeoc at 8:04 AM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience, both the leadership and the rank-and-file are usually way, way too optimistic about the range of projects that are feasible. People over-commit and then don't follow through.

Speak to the leaders and see if they can scale-back expectations to something that's doable, given the usual constraints of time, enthusiasm, and money.
posted by alex1965 at 8:12 AM on August 30, 2014

You need to decide on the group's upcoming projects / priorities separately from the signing-up-volunteers aspect. So, make some sort of a list of the activities/projects the group is going to do this week/month/semester (and it should really, really be more than a week of planning at a time; that hardly counts as 'planning'), in terms of what matches the group's goals, and then see if people are interested in signing up for those activities. If a particular activity doesn't get enough people, then it gets canceled, but it doesn't necessarily get replaced with something else that hasn't gone through the same consideration process.

My guess is that the group leadership needs to say 'no' a lot more often, and put the kibosh on people's pet projects and pie-in-the-sky ideas.

An executive board that meets separately from the general membership and reviews proposals isn't a bad idea either, if you can keep it to a limited size (say, 5 or 7 people at most) and the size of the organization supports it. If you only have, say, 20 general members, having a 5-person executive board is pretty top-heavy; I'd say you want a 5:1 or 10:1 ratio of general members to executive board members. However, a lot of activist/leftie organizations have a real problem with hierarchical organization structures (to their own detriment, in terms of getting shit done) and that argument can be a really unpleasant one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:41 AM on August 30, 2014

I still don't think creating a hierarchy is necessary for success for a small group, despite all the advice to create exec boards and such. I used jeoc's term "non-hierarchical management" to find some articles. This one seems like a helpful, quick overview and considerations in this kind of group.
posted by parkerjackson at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The dynamic you describe of feeling social pressure to keep volunteering even after you have hit your limit and then feeling both resentful and guilty is made worse by the fact that this whole process of both proposing projects and then volunteering for them is done in person in a group setting. It would help if you can find a way to get proposals and get commitments of time minus that social setting. In other words, even just writing ideas down anonymously and sticking them in a box at the beginning of the evening, then pulling them out and setting priorities and making decisions.

The other benefit that taking all ideas first would have is that it puts a limit on how many projects can be proposed. You shouldn't let people just keep proposing stuff until time runs out to hash this stuff out. There should be a specific number of projects per week that will be accepted, there should be a deadline for proposing them, there should be a sorting process for which ones we take on next week. Any ones we do not take on this week can go back in the box to be reconsidered next week OR you can start the process fresh each week.

After you have, as a group, decided on which projects you will do this week, create a physical sign up sheet for each project and set them up on a table. Then people can go sign up for however many tasks they feel they can do. That will dramatically reduce the social pressure to "keep raising your hand."

As noted above, the folks who raise their hand a lot are probably not actually getting all that work done. They raise their hand because it is a social setting and they want to be seen a certain way, then they fall down on the job when it actually matters. They got what they wanted out of it. They got that short term buzz of having everyone in the room think highly of them. Doing the actual work has little to no pay-off.

So, in addition to trying to reform the process, which is what really needs to happen, please try to be more disciplined and only volunteer for as much as you feel comfortable doing and then actually get it done. Over time, you will have more pull and your say will count for more because you actually do the work, unlike most people who raise their hand twenty times (most of them aren't going to get it done, there may be a few exceptions). And then even if the process stays crappy, your behavior will start to set the tone for how we handle this and it will get easier to say "Yeah, I have hit my limit. No more for me." and not have people pressuring you so much to "help out."
posted by Michele in California at 10:25 AM on August 30, 2014

Break things down into small groups that focus on a given task. Figure out your projects and the areas where you want to concentrate your effort, and then have people join task groups, or committees, or working groups – whatever works – so that everybody's working on something distinct. In Occupy Philly there were distinct working groups that handled either a practical matter (internet, food, medical, library, etc) or a political issue (race, women, labor, etc). These should allow everyone to contribute without feeling like some people are trying to do everything for the whole group.
posted by graymouser at 11:58 AM on August 30, 2014

Also, ten hours of volunteering plus a two hour meeting every week is too much - I know that's just your example, but if people are doing that much work, you have too few people. (Unless it's a super-urgent issue with a clear end point, or the volunteer work is "sit in a room reading or doing work so that the space is open and answering questions as required, or something.) Ten hours of active volunteer work on top of classes, homework and probably paid work is going to burn your people out very quickly.
posted by Frowner at 12:52 PM on August 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe get people to write down how many hours they have free for volunteering, before you get to the 'volunteer for things' bit? You don't have to share it, or again, they'll try and max it out, but people are terrible at estimating. Make them consider how much free time they have first, then halve it.
posted by Elysum at 9:31 PM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

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