Learning patterns/Community check-up: when online and offline communication becomes effective
What problem does this solve?
When it comes to large, diffused projects, a big question that comes to mind is how to best manage and communicate with your volunteers. Whether it be checking up on their output or just seeing how they're doing while implementing a project, making sure that your volunteers are both happy and fulfilled in the work they do is very important.
This was something that Wikimedia Philippines had to explore early on when we were discussing the CHMP: given the breadth of the project, how could we best follow up on each and every volunteer participant? While the project allows for some degree of autonomy and project members are free to do the project on their own if they so please (of course, they still have to report their output and expenses to us), we of course want to provide an environment that is both supporting and nurturing to our volunteers. Many projects in the Wikimedia movement rely heavily on an engaged corps of volunteers in order for them to be successful, and this learning pattern helps provide some meaningful ideas to how this can be done.
What is the solution?
Over the course of the CHMP (and, hopefully, the follow-up Encyclopedia of Philippine Heritage project), we implemented three key strategies for following up with our volunteers. These are:
- Prudent use of social media
- CHMP volunteers have access to a Wikimedia Philippines-managed Facebook group where they can not only talk with other volunteers, but also with project leads and other WMPH functionaries. We use this group not only to share latest developments in cultural heritage preservation in the country and elsewhere, but also for volunteers to follow up with their peers as to where they are in the project. As evidenced by the group, many posts exhibit a good rate of engagement, with at least a couple of likes and comments per post.
- While we recognize that social media is good for people to keep up with their personal lives, putting in relevant information to the activities they do offline helps us maintain interest in the project and allows for more instantaneous communication between volunteers—something mailing lists and on-wiki communication can't do effectively.
- Regular communication with volunteers
- Every month, the CHMP project lead would send progress reports out to project volunteers so they have some idea as to how they're doing. These reports contain their current progress, the targets they should reach as a participant, and how they compare to other volunteers. We keep lines of communication open between us and them, especially if they have any questions about how they could reach their targets.
- One of the major differences between this project and other large projects (e.g. Wiki Loves Monuments) is that this project requires constant communication between project organizers and participants, and between participants themselves. While it is certainly possible for someone to participate in WLM, for example, without ever speaking to an organizer, that is not the case with the CHMP. On the whole, we believe that there is a range of communication strategies between participants, ranging from no communication at all (WLM, WLE) to constant communication as a result of in-person interaction (WikiCamp, WMCON/Wikimania). The CHMP straddles somewhere between the two for two reasons:
- It is possible to participate in the project without talking to other volunteers. However, communicating with project organizers is, from our point of view, inevitable.
- While we try to organize opportunities for volunteers to interact with one another, they don't always provide ample opportunities for volunteers to build meaningful connections with one another as opposed to an environment where they will meet every day.
- Giving volunteers ample opportunity to communicate with one another is important for making a project like the CHMP work. Although it is possible for us to govern this project with a group of autonomous editors who will want to minimize interaction with one another, the social element of this project is part of the reason why it is so successful to begin with.
- Offline engagement
- During our offline events (e.g. WikiExpeditions), we make it a point to talk to volunteers to gather meaningful feedback on how the project is doing, how the project can improve for them, and what things we can do for future iterations of the project. Although we don't use hard data tools (e.g. surveys) for gathering this data, we do discuss project-related matters with individual editors to make sure that we have data points for improving upon the project.
Things to consider
Do keep in mind that this particular pattern is contingent on the type of project that you intend to run. As one of the organizers for the Wikipedia Asian Month, I tried applying a couple of the points from this learning pattern to improve volunteer engagement for that project—it didn't work as well as I'd like it.
This pattern works best for online projects with significant, though not predominant, offline components.
- Choosing to meet up virtually or in person
- Keeping in touch with volunteers
- Tracking an online campaign
- Use social media for promotion