Andrea Horbinski 2015 Q&A: Volunteer Management

What is your approach to people management and development?

In managing people I strive to provide a supportive oversight structure that enables them to work independently but also allows them to seek help and/or support as needed. In terms of communication style, my goal is to interact with people in a professional manner that takes into account the fact that the OTW’s primarily-digital methods of interaction by definition have a very narrow bandwidth compared to face-to-face interaction. That said, as it’s currently constructed the Board of Directors doesn’t do very much direct management; we tend to rely on committees to carry out their own work and manage themselves until and unless it becomes clear that a given committee is having serious problems. There are certainly potential problems with this approach, but it’s certainly given many of our chairs the opportunity to rise to the occasion and show that they’re the eminently capable individuals with whom it has been my pleasure to work over the last few years.

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

We’ve already made great strides towards doing this in a considered and sustainable way during my current term on the Board through the hard work of many committees altering and/or creating their recruiting policies under the guidance of the Volunteers & Recruiting Committee, and through the hard work of the Strategic Planning committee in carrying out all the hard work that went into creating the strategic plan. I was personally thrilled to approve the strategic plan and I’m looking forward to beginning to implement it in January 2016, and I think that’s the fundamental answer to this question: implement the strategic plan. Over the course of the plan’s three-year implementation timeframe, the organization as a whole will be put on a much better supported and much stronger foundation of shared policies, procedures, and documentation, and each committee and the Board itself undertaking the specific tasks mandated by the plan will also rationalize our current practices and ensure that everyone is working effectively. I also very much look forward to, as part of implementing the strategic plan, reconsidering the workload of volunteer roles throughout the organization and altering and/or better supporting them to make all roles sustainable over the long term. This is something that’s important to do for multiple reasons, but both self-interest and general ethics dictate making sure that volunteer workload is sustainable because failing that, the organization itself will not be sustainable, or worth sustaining.

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?

Speaking from my own experience, one of the problems a lot of OTW volunteers had in the early years was treating the OTW like a fandom or a fanwork: I certainly shared this attitude, and in the end (along with other reasons) it caused me and many other people a lot of pain because the OTW isn’t a fandom or a fanwork, it’s a non-profit organization, and those things are very different. Trying to run the OTW like a fandom or a fanwork, and recognizing that that wasn’t working, got us to the point where the strategic planning process and other reforms undertaken by some other key committees became completely necessary to the organization’s survival. But thanks to things like VolCom completely revamping the process for recruiting and inducting volunteers, and the strategic plan mandating even more documentation for committees, I’ve seen a definite change already in the attitude of prospective volunteers towards the organization, and I think it’s a much healthier and more professional attitude that recognizes that the OTW can’t and shouldn’t fill the same emotional role in our lives as fandom(s). Ironically, as a director I’ve struggled with my own overwork and that of my colleagues even more than I did as a committee chair, but my general response has been the same: to remind myself and everyone that the OTW is a volunteer commitment rather than a paid position, that it’s good to take breaks, and that self-care is critical. We can definitely do better at setting that example and encouraging it throughout the organization, but I also very much look forward to, as part of implementing the strategic plan, reconsidering the workload of volunteer roles throughout the organization and altering and/or better supporting them to make all roles sustainable over the long term.