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Learning patterns/When staff work with volunteers

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When staff work with volunteers
problemVolunteers and staff don't always work together effectively
solutionTry out these strategies for helping staff and volunteers work together in your context
created on16:37, 3 December 2014 (UTC)
status:in progress

What problem does this solve?


Organizations and project managers in the Wikimedia Movement may hire staff. Staff can bring value to the Wikimedia movement by amplifying the work of volunteers, bringing in needed skills and expertise, and providing consistency for key activities and programs that really need that.

Despite these great benefits, it can sometimes be a challenge for staff and volunteers to work effectively together.

Volunteers and staff working in the Wikimedia movement have identified a few common problems:

  • Staff and volunteers don't have a good understanding of one another's work, goals, plans, or accomplishments. Sometimes this is because staff and volunteers don't share with one another.
  • Staff and volunteers disagree about priorities.
  • Conflicts create bad feelings for staff and volunteers, and can demotivate both groups.
  • Volunteers and staff do duplicate work or work against each other, instead of working together to amplify one another's work.
  • Without the input of volunteers, staff may develop programs that rely on ongoing staff support with little connection to what volunteers need.
  • Staff can be a major investment. If staff and volunteers don't work effectively together, this may not be a worthwhile investment.
  • Volunteers feel staff are not meeting expectations. Staff feel volunteers have unreasonable expectations of them.
  • Staff don't always acknowledge and respect the expertise of volunteers and volunteers don't always acknowledge respect the expertise of staff. This can result in both groups feeling disempowered and undervalued.

What is the solution?


There is no magical solution to this problem, but given that both staff and volunteers have great potential when they work effectively together, we need to consider a few good practices. Not every approach will work well in every context, of course.

  1. Define volunteers and staff roles clearly, so volunteers and staff understand their roles, and how they overlap and are distinct. Ensure that staff positions don't ever replace volunteer efforts, but support or complement the work of volunteers.
  2. Have respect for volunteer time and work and staff time and work, since both are important resources for your community. Be understanding of one another's schedules. Staff may need to keep regular working hours to achieve good work-life balance, and volunteers juggling their volunteer work with a fulltime job may only be available at odd hours. There may be times where compromise is needed to work together, and this responsibility should be shared.
  3. Be understanding of different points of view, and have empathy for the other person. Volunteers may feel very passionately about their particular area of work because they are investing their precious free time, and staff may need to juggle many priorities to best serve the organization and the community. Remember that staff also invest a lot of their lives in their work, and so may care about it as deeply as a volunteer does. Both staff and volunteers can begin to feel "ownership" of a particular topic, or may feel like their concerns should be prioritized. In these cases, it helps to understand both perspectives in order to resolve conflicts. Strong relationships between volunteers and staff can go a long way in avoiding conflicts, or making them more easy to resolve, but it may not be possible for staff to have a close relationship with every single volunteer they work with.
  4. Communicate clearly, and make an effort to explain decisions. Staff may not understand everything a volunteer is facing in their life, and volunteers may not understand staff's competing priorities. This can lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings. Sometimes this can be avoided with better communication. For staff in particular, it helps to explain decisions clearly to volunteers who may not understand the reasons for a decision without having them explained first. For volunteers, it may help to let staff know about issues that might affect your work or your experience, and your own reasons for making decisions.
  5. Organizations with staff can set up ways for volunteers to offer feedback, and to shape the organization's strategy and priorities. Include ways for volunteers to give feedback that are comfortable for them. This will be very particular to the organization's context, and could include strategies like face-to-face meetings, a comment box, or a way to have good discussions online.
  6. Establish systems for volunteers and staff to work together effectively. For larger organizations, consider helping volunteers organize into working groups, and have staff serve as liaisons in each area.
  7. As an organization with staff, make sure you consider the impact your plans have on volunteers and their workflows. Integrate volunteer priorities and points of view into your strategic and annual planning processes. When you make a decision that affects volunteers, take that seriously and explain it clearly.

Things to consider

  • Defining volunteer and staff roles
  • Make sure volunteers and staff are both a part of decision-making
  • Have empathy and respect for one another
  • Maintain effective communication and good systems for working together
  • Have good systems for working together, like a staff liaison for working with volunteers

When to use

  • Wikimedia Osterreich has effective systems for getting feedback from their core volunteers and integrating it into their planning processes.
  • Amical Wikimedia has a program staff person that works very effectively with volunteers doing projects in the Catalan community.
  • Wikimedia Serbia is a volunteer-driven organization with program staff that emphasizes volunteer projects during its annual planning processes, and works effectively with a core group of volunteers.
  • Wikimedia Sverige's staff and key volunteers keep in touch with the most active people in their communities to ensure needs are communicated to the organization.


  • One issue not really discussed is much of the friction is caused by assumptions, many we may not be aware of. The WMF assumes that affiliates are completely self-contained entities which represent the Wikimedia movement "automatically." This may work with chapters, with their independent legal status. This does not necessarily work with other kinds of affiliates.

On the surface, it may seem like Wiki Learning Tec de Monterrey represents the movement with the 32-campus nationwide Tec de Monterrey school system, but that is not completely true. The main issue is that we are mostly professors at the same school... therefore the Tec sees us as employees, not as representatives of Wikimedia.

To convince an institution such as Tec de Monterrey to continue putting resources into Wikimedia (in particular events such as Semana i), they need to see a relationship with the global community (the main reason they are interested in Wikimedia) and seeing only local faces does not do that. Anna Koval's visit in 2014 and to a lesser extent, Tighe Flanagan's and Vahid Masrour's virtual appearance are an important element but for a long term commitment, it may not be enough.

This is why the institution is still pressing us for a MOU (convenio) with the WMF, as this is something concrete for them. However, this does not jive with WMF bureaucracy. Thelmadatter (talk) 16:03, 2 January 2017 (UTC)[reply]

See also