Managing volunteers: Understand their selfishness and selflessness

Volunteers can be wonderful to work with, but be aware they're often in it for ego gratification, as well as the good works

This one came out of a LinkedIn project management discussion group. I'm including it because even in the for-profit world, some project participants have a lot in common with the volunteers who generously donate their time to non-profits.

I am working on a project that seems to be falling apart. Even though the folks are all volunteers, communication is the first thing that is hindering the success of the project. The second thing that is hindering the project is ego. Even though we are volunteers some of the members want lofty titles. As the song say "it dont mean a thing if you aint got the swing." Without communication, succeeding is difficult.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob has more ideas on bringing a group together in "Teamwork is an essential skill -- so why isn't anyone teaching it?" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

They're all volunteers, and you're surprised ego is getting in the way? Ego gratification is one of the main reasons people offer their time and services. This is both your problem and your solution: Find ways to stroke their egos and they'll become downright docile.

OK, that's a stretch, but they'll become far more cooperative than what you're experiencing right now.

This might sound disrespectful toward your volunteers. It isn't -- it's a fact that the desire to do good works often coexists with the desire to feed one's ego. It happens all the time.

As far as communication is concerned, information hoarding is a symptom, not a root cause.

Three possibilities come to mind. It's possible -- but unlikely -- that some of your volunteers feel the need to jealously guard information in a frantic desire to get credit for it. It's also possible they just don't know any better. That isn't much more likely than the first alternative.

The most probable root cause is that communication is the first thing to go when people lose trust in each other when they're under pressure -- especially time pressure. It's up to you to structure communication sessions, ask what's going on, and remind people to use the old "who else should know about this?" test on a regular basis.

The rule is simple: Communication is like any other project task -- either build it into the project schedule or don't expect it to get done.

This story, "Managing volunteers: Understand their selfishness and selflessness," was originally published at Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on