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Felipe Elia
Felipe Elia

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The senior volunteer

Did you already realize that not all volunteers have the same characteristics? How nonprofit communities are similar to business companies? How do some open-source group members seem to handle everything? We will talk about this and some related problems and solutions in this post.

Everything will get easier if we start to think about seniority in volunteer work.

Who are the senior volunteers?

When we talk about seniority, we are talking about several different characteristics. In our specific case here, two of them are the most important: responsibility and experience.

By responsibility, I mean task ownership. If you ask this volunteer to handle catering of an event, you don't need to call him one day before to confirm how things are going. You can trust them.

In our context, experience is to know what needs to be done. In the Brazilian WordPress community, for example, we have a group focused on translation and localization. The senior volunteer knows how the group is organized, that we have a glossary and a style guide, etc.

Sometimes goodwill is not enough, you need to know what you are doing.

Why do we need to talk about seniority in volunteer work?

I do volunteer work for several years and I love it. Despite that, some bottlenecks are quite common in communities of all kinds. The biggest one is often leaders that don't delegate but the second biggest bottleneck is the lack of volunteers to delegate to.

We can talk about excessive centralization in voluntary groups in upcoming posts. To make it happen, I need your help: please share this post on your social networks!

Identify, capacitate, delegate, and trust

The path to raising the number of senior volunteers goes through these four steps. This is a continuous process: never stop identifying potential new members or capacitating, delegating, and trusting in the older ones.


From those two key points -- responsibility and experience -- you will not be able to teach the former. It is not binary too, there are different degrees of responsibility. It is a community organizers' job to perceive who has the highest degrees of responsibility and commitment.

In many cases, experience right from the start is something impossible for new members. Maybe the community subgroup is too specific, there are too many rules, etc. Here you want to identify those who want to learn. (Of course, you also want to make the process as smooth as possible.)

Miles Morales is a great example of someone who has all the needed capabilities and is also wanting to learn.

Capacitate and delegate

In most cases, these two steps happen at the same time. The act of distributing simpler tasks unburdens organizers and empowers volunteers. Identify all the tasks needed for the group activity (with degrees of importance and complexity) and start distributing them to the volunteers.

The intention here can not be to get rid of boring tasks, like "moving chairs in an auditorium" or "copying and pasting data in a spreadsheet". In the long run, the objective is to capacitate volunteers in a way they can take the place of organizers.


It is here where many organizers get things wrong. In a company, tolerance for unpleasantness is high simply because people need to keep their job. In a volunteer community that is not so true, if a situation becomes unpleasant, the person quits.

It is a delicate balance between keeping the volunteer happy and the work well done. One thing needs to be clear, though: it is not because a thing was not done in your way that it was done wrongly. Allow the volunteer to do a task the way they think is better, within whatever limits imposed by the community rules. Beyond that, remember that making mistakes is part of the process. You need to allow others to fail!

If even a lion can fall, anyone can.

As an organizer it is important that you accept to delegate as often as possible: communities (and companies) can only make progress if organizers and leaders are not dealing with everything at once.

How to attract and keep senior volunteers

Voluntary communities have many problems. One of them is the high rotativity of volunteers. As this text is already too big, we will revisit this topic soon. I would love to hear what you think about what I wrote so far.

Also, if you work with me in any community out there and think I can improve on any of these topics, I want to know!

At last but not least, please share this text on your social network :) Thanks!

Feature image by Tim Mossholder from Unsplash

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