6 Managing Volunteers

This section of The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) will help you as a project manager to ensure that the volunteers and collaborators on your project are motivated and keen to stay involved, and that they are fairly recognised and rewarded for their work, even if it is on a volunteer basis. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY) and you are welcome to print this document, make a copy for yourself, or share with others.

If you’re looking for tips on how best to manage a group of volunteers, consider the suggestions below as you’re forming and managing your team. If you have any questions about this, or any other of our guides, please feel free to post them in the Rebus Community project home. This document is an evolving draft, based on our experience managing open textbook projects and community feedback. We welcome your thoughts and contributions, so let us know how it works for you, or if you have any suggestions to improve the guide.

First of all, who or what is a project manager?

As the name suggests, this person is responsible for managing the project – that is, the process of seeing the resource all the way to release (in the traditional publishing world, the managing editor would be a good equivalent). The project manager’s duties are wide ranging (read more about them in our Roles & Responsibilities guide), but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on their role managing a team of volunteers. This involves:

  • Interacting with volunteers & being their point of contact on a project
  • Managing their task assignments, deadlines, workloads, etc.
  • Providing supporting documentation and guidance on expectations
  • Establishing project norms for recognising work
  • Mediating and resolving tensions or conflict

Project managers are of course not alone in handling these, and other in the leadership team have a big part to play, too. Overall, those running a project are responsible for making sure everyone involved (including themselves) is supported throughout the process and recognised for their time and commitment.

Who are volunteers, and why are they important?

There are numerous benefits to having a team around your project – to help share the workload, keep you motivated, and improve the quality and impact of the final resource. Without a team, you may not be able to complete your project, or might take a very long time to do so. Take a look at our overview of building a team for more on why teams are important.

Given the need for extra hands, most teams will likely have at least some volunteers involved. Volunteers are, to put it simply, people who believe in your project and are willing to devote their time and expertise to it without much (or any) financial compensation. The fact that many volunteers will be expending time, energy, and more on your project without any payment, makes their contributions all the more valuable.

It’s also important to remember that even those who are compensated in some way, or who have a mandate in their day job to support OER (so might not be officially considered volunteers) are likely to be putting in more than they are paid to do. Many of the people involved are likely to be contributing to a project because they believe in it, and it’s important for managers to be aware of that and not take advantage. Project managers, and indeed the whole team, should recognise the value of the labour put into a project and find ways to make sure it is recognised and rewarded in a variety of ways, not just financial compensation.

Volunteers, whether officially designated as such or not, come with all sorts of wonderful skills that you might not have yourself – so recognize the value they bring, and most importantly, don’t take them for granted!

“Managing” volunteers sounds tricky…

The truth is, managing volunteers who are providing free labour is tricky, and ethically complex. While volunteers do tend to participate in projects out of belief in the mission, managers have to balance leveraging that passion with not exploiting it. The labour that goes into creating open textbooks is immensely valuable, but often isn’t compensated in the lingua franca of most work arrangements: money. As a result, managers should be thinking of other ways to compensate and recognise the work done, but it can be an uncomfortable experience if you’re new to it.

These different motivators and exchanges can also make it difficult for managers to feel like they have the authority to ask a lot of volunteers. It’s also not a totally unfounded concern – it can sometimes be tough to keep people on track, especially when you have neither stick nor carrot to spur them on. There’s no ready answer to this conundrum, but it’s something to be aware of and to figure out in your context.

In addition, hierarchies and power relations within teams can be non-traditional. You may find yourself as a project manager or lead, tasked with overseeing a group of volunteers who are your seniors elsewhere in your work. You may find these volunteers asserting their position within the team, leading to a situation where there are ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ Especially in these cases, it’s important that you remember that this is still your project, and that you need to be able to lay down the law as needed, albeit diplomatically.

Managing volunteers can also prove difficult as people generally have other things going on in their work and personal lives, sometimes making it hard to keep track of them (and to keep them on track!). In some situations, you may stop hearing from a volunteer entirely, which may be a sign that they are no longer participating in the project, but they might also pop up again later and still be keen to contribute. In other cases, you might find that the volunteers’ work or their behaviour itself is not up to scratch, which needs to be handled carefully.

Perhaps the trickiest part about managing volunteers is the emotional labour involved. As part of this work, you will need to form professional relationships with your teammates; take into account volunteers’ personalities when interacting with them; be conscious of individuals’ egos and emotions; rephrase and rearticulate seemingly straightforward communications into something more tactful; patiently send out reminders; repeat and relay information many times over; and more. As a manager, you need to see to the overall well-being of your group, but also not at the expense of yourself. This is a hard balance to achieve, but hopefully the tips and suggestions below will help!

…but you can still be a good manager

The best way to be a good manager to your volunteers is to be open and transparent about the project and related tasks. Make sure to give your volunteers all the information they need upfront, and be clear about what you expect them to deliver. Setting clear expectations at the start of the project, and keeping the lines of communication open throughout the process is key.

Here are some other strategies you might find useful:

  • Ask all your volunteers to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the outset of their involvement in the project, to clarify their roles and responsibilities in relation to the larger team. You can use our MOU template and adapt it to your project, or create your own. In the spirit of collaboration, make sure to sign the MOU yourself, so volunteers are aware that the same expectations and standards apply equally to them and you – and make sure you follow through.
  • If volunteers have any questions for you, either at the start of the project or later down the line, be patient with them and do your best to answer their queries, even if the information is available to them elsewhere. As mentioned, volunteers will likely be juggling many different tasks, projects, and responsibilities, so they might forget details related to your project or get confused with their specific task. Here too, be patient and kind with interacting with them – it will make their experience of working on the project all the better! And on a practical note, keep as many of these exchanges public as possible, so everyone benefits from the responses, make sure any questions really are answered in your documentation (updating them if need be), and maintain a running list of FAQs that you can point people to.
  • If you have any questions, concerns, or hesitations about a particular volunteer, try to vet them up front by asking for a CV, writing sample, or relevant materials. Also, try to reflect and think critically about why you’re hesitating – just because they might not be who you expected to show up doesn’t mean they won’t be an asset. Different backgrounds, experiences and expertise can all contribute to a stronger project.
  • Throughout the course of the project, be sure to recognise your volunteers and their time with consistent gratitude. Acknowledgment of their contributions and commitment goes a long way.
  • Make the experience an enjoyable one! Do your best to include some informal social time to catch up, discuss the weather and say hellos when you meet, during calls, or digitally, before getting down to business.
  • Give regular updates to all volunteers about the work taking place elsewhere on the project – this helps to make them feel connected to the bigger picture and can help motivate them to complete their own contribution. Regardless of a volunteer’s contribution to the project, this helps to make them feel like they are part of the team working towards a common goal.
  • Keep in mind that people on your team may be from different backgrounds, and as such, might face different challenges or have different needs when completing a task. It’s important that you don’t force your way or method of working on your fellow volunteers, and instead let them decide how best they want to forge ahead with a task. Remember that just because something is different, doesn’t mean that it is wrong.
  • If someone’s contribution isn’t up to scratch, be tactful, constructive, and look for other ways they can participate. You don’t have an obligation to include something in your project that you and your leadership team does not want to, but if you’re uncomfortable conveying this to a volunteer, ask others to help you.
  • All along the way, it’s good to show volunteers that you appreciate their work by rewarding them however possible. This doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of money (although paying people if you can is always a good thing!), but can be simple things like:
    • giving volunteers good (impressive-sounding) titles
    • including names, biographies, and relevant links in promotional materials and the final work
    • writing recommendation letters
    • sending them print copies of the text or other tokens once it’s released
    • and of course, if you are in a position to compensate them financially for their contribution, they are sure to appreciate it.

Most importantly, try to be understanding and empathetic about your volunteers. As a manager, you should provide volunteers with a clear platform to voice their concerns, and also be clear about what decision-making processes look like in the team. Let volunteers know what your responsibility is to them and the project. Tell them how much time you plan to devote to the project, so they can see you meeting their commitments with your own. Being a good manager is ultimately about being a good team player and coach – you set your team up to succeed, and be there to help if needed.

What if something goes wrong?

Even if you follow all the suggestions outlined above, it’s unlikely that your project will run smoothly and perfectly from start to finish (if it does, tell us how in the Rebus Community project home!). So if something goes wrong, no matter how big or small, don’t stress. These things happen, and your first reaction as a manager should be to: take a deep breath, and sleep on the issue. Try not to respond immediately either in anger, worry, or panic, but try to take a bit of time to think it over. Being a manager also means being responsive and adapting the plan as you go, and there’s always a solution somewhere.

Here are some other strategies you might look to:

  • Depending on the nature of the issue, it might help to go back to your preparatory documents, such as the project summary, outline, MOU, etc. Consider these documents as evidence of your project work, and sift through them for clarity and reassurance. They also provide confirmation if there is disagreement on something that was set out early on.
  • If a problem emerges with a volunteer, try to set up some time to meet them and talk through the issue face-to-face, instead of over text or email. Turn to your admin and advisory teams for help, but try not to make the volunteer feel like you are ganging up against them. Your first goal should be to attain clarity over the situation, and not to make a decision or pass judgment.
  • If an issue related to content crops up, for instance if an author wants to back out of the project during the editing/review phase, or if an author doesn’t want to make important changes requested by a reviewer or editor, look back to your MOU and confirm the license on content submitted. More often than not, if the content was licensed CC BY, it can be salvaged in some way to be useful for the project if you decide that’s best. However, depending on the situation, it might not be good form to include contested content even if you have the legal right to do so. Use your judgement, and defer to the content creator.
  • If a volunteer is acting a crass or rude manner to you or anyone else on the project, it’s within your rights to ask them to leave the project. As a manager, you are responsible for the team overall, and should stand-up against anyone disobeying the team’s ground rules. You can do so politely, but stand your ground and protect your fellow collaborators. Again, look for backup from your leadership team if you need it.
  • It’s good to acknowledge that in some situations, you might be the person who messed up. In this case, be up front about where things went wrong, and take responsibility for your actions. Then, do what you can to look for solutions and to fix the error. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, from your team and from the community at large!

Lastly, look to the community not only for help in situations, but also for advice and counsel. Talk to other project managers, find out their experiences, learn from their successes and failures, and share your own stories. Remember that even if you’re the only manager on your project, you’re not alone in the community!

Don’t forget to look after yourself

Managing a group of people is hard work, and you might get used to putting yourself in the backseat and keeping the project or volunteers at the forefront. While the project and other volunteers are important, you are too! We wanted to end this section with a short reminder to make sure you’re managing your own time and well-being carefully too.

Be nice to yourself along the way, and remember that you are also volunteering your energy on the project. Even if you’re being paid to act as a project manager, your time and effort are still valuable. Take breaks from the project every now and then and try to build in time to spend on other things – managing a project can be a lot of work, but it should also be a positive experience for you, both personally and professionally.

Need further assistance?

We hope these suggestions will help you be an effective project manager. We’ll continue to add to this guide as we work with more projects, and we welcome your ideas on what else we could add, or your feedback on how these approaches have worked (or not!) for you.

If you have questions, or anything to add, please let us know in the Rebus Community project home.


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) Copyright © 2019 by Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book