This session documentation was approved by the speaker.
The Volunteer Supporters Network (VSN) is a new working group of individuals from Wikimedia organizations dealing with volunteer/community support. Within the past six months, the VSN created a hub page (Volunteer Supporters Network) and a mailing list in order to institutionalize the inter-organizational dialogue on volunteer/community support.
The sessions consists of two parts. Firstly, members of the VSN present their work and discuss their role within the movement. The session participants can find out if and how they can participate in, collaborate with and/or benefit from the new group. The second part of the session is dedicated to the preparation of a working paper on important issues concerning volunteer support. The working paper will contain thoughts on the motivation and experiences of people who volunteer to Wikimedia/Wikipedia as well as possible expectations and needs of volunteers towards volunteer supporters.
Get more people involved in the network, intended for volunteers to share experiences.
Volunteers (i.e. non-paid staff) and people who manage them
The Volunteer Supporters Network (VSN) is an international group of Wikimedians active in volunteer and community support. Its primary long-term goal is to improve the working conditions of volunteers in Wikimedia projects by sharing resources, experiences and expertise in the field of volunteer support.
In the the first part of the session, the idea behind the network, its history and current status, were outlined. In order to break down and specify the goals of the VSN and determine the means by which to achieve them, it is important to understand the nature of volunteer commitment in the context of Wikimedia projects. With this in mind, the second part of the session was designed as a workshop with discussion and aimed at collecting the attendees’ thoughts about the following questions: Why do people volunteer to Wikimedia/Wikipedia? What are volunteers taking from their experience in Wikimedia/Wikipedia? What should they take away?
“Why do people volunteer to Wikimedia/Wikipedia?”
For the first question (“why do people volunteer to Wikimedia/Wikipedia?”) over 30 answers were collected. Approximately one third of the responses identified sharing knowledge and gaining a sense of purpose through contribution (“it’s meaningful to share your knowledge”) as a core motivation for volunteering in Wikimedia projects / Wikipedia. Another third indicated that fun and enjoyment were important reasons. Many of the attendees also thought that being part of a community played a big role for volunteers, as well as personal development. The discussion illustrated that shared values and visions form the basis of many of the motivations for volunteering in Wikimedia/Wikipedia — the common denominator is striving for free knowledge.
However, it became apparent during the discussion that attendees had different understandings of the term “volunteer” in a Wikimedia/Wikipedia context and a common definition should be established first. Some primarily thought of volunteers as people contributing to Wikipedia as authors, some thought of volunteers mainly as people organising and participating in projects, while for others, the term “volunteer” included both aspects.
“What are volunteers taking from their experience in Wikimedia/Wikipedia?”
The answers to the second question (“what are volunteers taking from their experience in Wikimedia/Wikipedia?”) showed what attendees perceived to be the effects that voluntary work has on volunteers (the as-is state). On the other hand, asking what volunteers should ideally take away from their experience shed light on the desired effects (the “target state”). This is a crucial point for anyone involved in volunteer support – understanding the motivations, knowing the expectations of volunteers and comparing those to the current state is the first step to developing volunteer support.
When asking what volunteers take from their experience in Wikimedia projects, skills and experience was the most commonly given answer (“professional skills”, “know-how”, “procedural knowledge”, “communication skills” etc.). Many people also mentioned satisfaction and other emotional benefits (“satisfaction from sharing”, “increased self confidence because they can contribute”), followed by the social / community aspects (“meeting like-minded people”, “new acquaintances”). Interestingly enough, out of 30 answers collected, only one brought up the negative aspects (“disillusion”) which volunteering in Wikimedia projects can entail as well. Discussing this point showed that many of the attendees were aware of the fact that doing voluntary work can also lead to disappointment and frustration, especially if problems are encountered or if one’s efforts aren’t recognised and valued. This made it clear once more how important it is for volunteers to be shown appreciation.
“What should volunteers take from their experience?”
The answers to the third question (“what should volunteers take from their experience?”) were very similar to those of the question about what volunteers are taking away. Skills and soft skills (“web and media literacy”,”improved skills as writers and trainers”, “know-how”, “critical thinking”, “interpersonal skills” etc.) were at the top of the list. Another group of answers can be summarised as recognition and other emotional benefits (“a sense of purpose and belonging”, “motivation and satisfaction”, “feeling useful”, “recognition of their work” etc.). While answers concentrated around the issue of “satisfaction” for the as-is state (what are they taking away?), answers describing the target state (what should they take away?) put more emphasis on “recognition”. The social / community aspects (“the experience of working with different people all over the world”) were also mentioned a lot, sometimes with a focus on networks (“a network of personal and professional contacts”). Other professional benefits (“a way to boost their résumé”) were brought up as well.
At the end of the session, the needs and expectations that volunteers in Wikimedia projects have towards volunteer support were discussed in more detail. In this context, the importance of showing recognition of the volunteers’ work was stressed once more. It was also mentioned that volunteer supporters should offer emotional support as well as organisational or financial support and focus on helping with issues that volunteers might not be able to do, while leaving the fun parts to the volunteers. However, another remark pointed out that not all things associated with voluntary work in Wikimedia projects can be fun – for example, many volunteers do not enjoy reporting as much as actually carrying out projects. It was argued that this reality of voluntary work should be shown to volunteers as well. One comment suggested that volunteer support should develop processes that enable volunteers to gain new skills and competences in order to prevent feelings of frustration when things don’t go as expected.