Katarina Harju 2015 Q&A: Volunteer Management

What is your approach to people management and development?

I think that the most important thing in any management position is to enable the people under you to do their tasks as well as possible. That of course can mean very different things in different situations. In the Translation committee, for example, we assign tasks and monitor deadlines, because we’ve found that people find it easier to reach their goal with a deadline, even when they know that deadline is by no means set in stone. We also include volunteers in making decisions that concern them, their work, and the committee’s goals as a whole, because people feeling involved makes them more motivated and improves the quality of the decisions.

In Board’s case I think this means that we should ensure an environment where the committee chairs can do their work efficiently and without needing to continually ask Board for permission, or fear interference: both Board and chairs need to know where the limits are to allow for committees to function. There is no need for Board to really involve itself in managing the people below the chairs, unless there are some exceptional circumstances.

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

I feel that it’s important to get people talking to each other, both across committees and inside them. It would help foster an environment where people feel more included and therefore more content. It would also help with creating an atmosphere where it’s not such a big deal to, for example, contact someone on another committee for a quick question. The fact that committees have clearly defined tasks and goals is a good thing, but we shouldn’t be so blinded by questions of purview that knowledge ends up lost between committees, and people end up solving problems that other committees might already have found answers for.

In general I think a more open and transparent environment would help everyone feel more comfortable in their positions, which would help with retaining our volunteers and remove additional stress. We should also get away from an unnecessary levels of micromanagement from on high, because giving people more autonomy and responsibility to perform their tasks actually tends to lead to greater efficiency and personal satisfaction.

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?

I don’t actually agree with the premise of the question. It may have been true at some point in the past, but it’s not a problem I’ve ever really come across during my service in the OTW. Yes, there are people who end up doing more work than is perhaps good for them, but that has usually been a problem in committees that simply do not have enough staffers or volunteers to share the work, which I don’t think is quite the same issue that this question is trying to address. If the problem is understaffing, the ideal solution of course would be to get more people to share the workload. Of course, this is often not quite so simple, because this is a problem that usually occurs in committees where new recruits can not easily be trained on the job, so to speak, but would have to have the right qualifications to start with.

My own experience in managing volunteers is in Translation, where we currently have around 170 volunteers. Every task, whether it be translation, documentation, management or any other task, has a deadline. Most of the deadlines are flexible, and people are encouraged to ask for extensions when needed, or to go on hiatus if they need to be away for longer. For all tasks we try to be as clear as possible about the fact that they are all voluntary, and that there is no problem with simply stating that a particular task is something you don’t want to do, for whatever reason. I have never personally experienced a situation in the OTW, in any of the committees I’ve been in, where I would have felt pressured to commit to something.