Matty Bowers 2015 Q&A: Volunteer Management

What is your approach to people management and development?

I’m a strong believer in flexibility; my management style depends on the situation and people involved. In general, I prefer to work with people, not over them. As a committee chair, it’s my job to focus on the big picture and keep things moving, not micromanage and interfere in day to day committee work. I hope to follow a similar style on Board.

Regarding development, I think a key area the OTW needs to focus on improving is training. It’s something I spent a lot of time rethinking in Support and Abuse, both for staff training and chair training. Good training is crucial for sustainability. Since implementing the new training regimes, we’ve gone from three active staffers on Abuse to over a dozen. Many other committees are implementing similar systems, and the impact is noticeable throughout the organization.

How would you build the organisation’s capacity and ensure we are making the most of volunteers’ energy and skills?

Volunteers are donating their time and efforts on what is essentially an unpaid, part-time job. Their contributions should be celebrated – we wouldn’t be where we are without them.

As an organization we need to:

  • work on effective recruiting
  • ensure volunteers are given sufficient training
  • make sure they all have a clear understanding of what their tasks are
  • make sure no one person is responsible for too much
  • make tasks meaningful; people aren’t volunteering to do busywork
  • give honest feedback – most people want to know where they are doing well and what needs improvement
  • make sure no one is a lynchpin; everyone should feel they can step back without things falling apart
  • remember that we are volunteering out of love for fandom and have fun

We especially need to make more of an effort to train people for staff and chair roles. Lack of training often leads to frustration and inefficiency, which greatly increases the risk of burnout. Without new staff and chairs, the same people keep rotating tasks in an attempt to keep things going.

Thankfully, more and more committees are starting to make an effort in regards to training. We have several committees, including Abuse, trying out chair training track systems, which will greatly help the organization. Chair positions are no longer going to the last person standing; they are going to people who have earned the positions and are capable of handling the roles.

A lot of the tensions between the Board, Committees, Volunteers and the public stem from the fact that a lot of those volunteers over-invest because they are passionate about fandom, end up close to burnout, and tend to be overworked, which isn’t sustainable in the long run.
A) In your experience as an OTW volunteer/staffer/Board member, how did you deal with this, both for yourself as with people you were responsible for,
B) How would you promote an atmosphere where volunteers don’t feel this pressure?

OTW work is never finished. There is always another tag to wrangle, another report to answer, another bug to investigate, another email to write – the list goes on and on. It’s easy to think, “Ok, just one more…” and next thing you know it’s midnight and you’ve done nothing but OTW work.

For me personally, I grew up watching people overextend themselves to the point of burnout, so setting limits on OTW work isn’t a problem. I do take my commitment to my OTW work very seriously; this means I do occasionally get up at 6am for a meeting or rearrange my personal life to meet OTW deadlines. However, I have no problem taking a break from OTW duties for reading, gaming, family time, etc. In the end, it’s all about balance.

As a chair, I very strongly encourage my staffers to take breaks and to disengage from OTW work before they start feeling overwhelmed. Tags, tickets, emails, bugs – they’ll all be there when you come back. For many of us, our tasks are literally neverending. There is nothing wrong with taking breaks and letting others take their turn.

The real problems arise when there is no one else to to step in and take a turn. This is where Board needs to ensure the committee chairs are getting all the support they need in recruiting and retaining volunteers.