The Right And Wrong Way to Manage Volunteer Website Projects

I take on projects in every stage of completion: No site and few plans for the first. A “refreshed” design but no new content. A total overhaul of everything.

But there’s another surprisingly frequent project: completing a half-finished website started by a volunteer. I used to find this pretty baffling. Websites are fun to make, and many people have the skills to put together at least a basic one. Some of the very first websites I made were as a volunteer! Yet these projects often fall short of expectations or even launch day.

Make Sure You Have the Right Volunteer

A friend of mine who used to work in volunteer management reminded me that volunteers need to start small. Having discrete, well-defined tasks are the best way to recruit new volunteers, and building a website is not a discrete, well-defined task. Website projects are a lot to ask of a volunteer, and for many, building an entire website is simply too big a project. It’s not impossible, but only certain committed volunteers can do it.

However, I’m most interested in why even those volunteers sometimes don’t see projects through.

The Right Kind of Direction

Of the volunteers that can handle building a full website, many face one of two scenarios I try to avoid at all costs in my day-to-day professional work:

  1. Provided with little definition and expected to “make it happen.”
  2. Micromanaged and given minimal control over the project.

These seem like opposites but are really just two sides of the same coin. Both stem from misunderstanding what information a website volunteer—and really, any website builder—needs for success.

Too Little Input

A volunteer is not a staff person so they don’t know the organization’s strategic goals or needs for a website. If there isn’t a coherent message to communicate via a website, a volunteer can’t make a website to communicate it! Volunteers can help with the design and technical implementation of a website but only when given enough background and content ahead of time.

Too Much Input aka Website Volunteers are Not Machines

The “right volunteer.” mentioned above, wants to collaborate with an organization to support its mission. In an old post, “Trust is a Must”, I wrote about collaboration and a particularly problematic way I see web projects run:

I’ll start with what collaboration is not: one person telling another what to do. That is how an operator works with a machine. Humans are not machines.

Unfortunately, this passes for collaboration at times. I have occasionally worked with clients who view me as a website machine (or Photoshop machine or WordPress machine). They seem to think that building a website works like this: Client Input → *Magic* → Website.

Treating a volunteer as a “website machine” causes two problems:

  1. The volunteer feels used or jerked around.
  2. The organization misses an opportunity to gather feedback from someone with valuable skills. ((Let’s not forget, that’s why they needed the volunteer in the first place!))

Those feelings reduce the buy-in of volunteers and explain why some of them fade into the ether. If a volunteer has no control over the work and sees their suggestions and opinions ignored, it’s only a matter of time until the website project falls off their list of priorities.

People volunteer so they feel they’re supporting a cause (hopefully they are!), and the key to retaining volunteers is giving them work that tangibly does that. I suspect that over-direction frequently makes the website work less like a rewarding donation and more like just-another-project. ((Many volunteer website-builders also build websites—or do related technology work—at their day job, increasing the risk that a volunteer gig just feels like more of the same.))

How to Make Things Better

Volunteers need lots of input and feedback, but the type of input and feedback matters. Start up front with lots of information about the organization, the needs of the site, and branding and messaging requirements.

Tread lightly, though, when it comes to the minor details of implementation. If something a volunteer does needs to change, make sure to explain why. Justify the change to make sure that it’s actually important and allow the volunteer to understand why and respond. This is the moment when a volunteer’s knowledge and expertise is most valuable…and often squandered. A back and forth about the website will undoubtedly increase a volunteer’s commitment, improve the site, and improve the chances of completion.

In the long run, I still think it’s good to pay for your nonprofit website when you can, but asking more of your volunteer—at least when the actual implementation of the website is concerned—may improve the chances of a successful project.

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