Three Broad Strategies to Reward and Motivate Volunteers on Your Project Team

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These days most organizations are operating with the smallest possible number of employees. This means that project managers routinely find themselves having to reach beyond their organization’s “official” employee roster to find team members. And frequently this means acquiring volunteers — team members who can’t be paid or given any tangible compensation for their efforts.  But if you can’t pay them or provide any material compensation, how can you reward volunteers for their work? And, more importantly, how can you keep them motivated to do a good job and to join your project team the next time you need them?

Below are three broad strategies for rewarding and motivating volunteers.

1. Respect them and demonstrate your respect through your actions.

Specifically you can:

  • Take the time to understand their unique talents and skills, then work with them to co-create unique roles for them on the project.
  • Ask for their help, or at minimum their approval, in defining their assigned tasks, deadlines, review/approval points, etc.
  • On their behalf, fight for the time and resources (tools, equipment, support staff, etc.)  they will need so they can do work they can be proud of.
  • Share information. Let them know some of the strategic goals, marketplace issues, difficult challenges, and other “big picture” forces that are the larger context of the project. Let them know that their limited contributions are tied to a higher purpose.
  • Do not micromanage their work. Micromanaging sends this message: “I don’t trust you to do this without my looking over your shoulder.” Micromanaging is the opposite of respect.
  • Honor their family and community obligations. Take the time to find out how the project will conflict with these important obligations and then do your best to help volunteers rearrange their project work and schedule as needed.

2. Protect them from administrivia and arbitrary rules.

Specifically you can:

  • Protect them from having to complete reports, attend meetings or participate in senior management “dog and pony shows” that do not directly contribute to the quality of their work.  Instead you, as project manager, can submit the report, attend the meeting, etc. on behalf of the volunteer. A quick, informal conversation with the volunteer may be all that’s needed to prep you for “standing in” for them to complete these chores.
  • Let them choose their own work hours and work days.
  • Let them to choose their own workplace. Specifically, if they want to work off site and there is no compelling reason to be in the office or at the job site, encourage them to work wherever they choose.
  • Encourage them to let you know when anyone in your organization asks them to do something that does not directly contribute to the quality of their assigned project work. Then take the necessary action to eliminate or otherwise protect them from this request.

3. Provide detailed, widely-circulated, career-enhancing feedback on their performance.

Specifically you can:

  • Tell them explicitly when they are doing a great job. Let them know exactly what they did, in detail, that you appreciate.
  • Document, in writing, their specific contributions. Then make sure this documentation is shared with 1) your senior management, 2) their senior management, 3) their personnel file, performance reviewers, etc.
  • Invite them to any celebrations, parties, lunches, retreats and any other social or semi-social events that honor the contributions of the project team. (But make sure these are optional. They should be able to opt out of these gatherings if they choose to do so!)
  • Point the spotlight at volunteers and make sure they they are recognized and applauded for their work.  When the time comes to formally roll out the project results, make sure volunteers share the stage with you. Better yet, get out of the spotlight and let it shine on the volunteers who gave their time and energy to help the project succeed.

In introducing his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, bestselling author Daniel Pink says “The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

Whether paid staff or unpaid volunteers, the people we want to have on our project teams — the creative, high-performing professionals who will help us create great results — aren’t motivated so much by money as they are by what Pink refers to as “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” The strategies outlined above will help your project team members achieve all of these.

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