Lessons from CC South Korea on volunteers

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend Commons Crossroads, the Creative Commons Asia Pacific 2009 conference organised by Creative Commons Philippines and supported by Arellano law school.

The event was fantastic. I learnt a lot about what the other jurisdictions' Creative Commons projects were up to, and we discussed the future of Creative Commons projects in the Asia Pacific region.

One thing I want to focus on today is what I learnt from Creative Commons South Korea.

Creative Commons South Korea at CCAP09

Judge Jay Yoon (pictured right) is one of the project leads for CC South Korea. He's incredibly charismatic and obviously cares very deeply about his volunteers. They're the other five people that came with him to Manila for the conference (four of whom are pictured above). Each of these volunteers gave at least one excellent presentation at the conference, and they're just 5 of a team of 30 or 40 volunteers in Korea. They were each enthusiastic and very intelligent and would obviously have a lot to contribute to the CC KR project.

One of the things we've always struggled with, both at CC Australia and EFA, is how to effectively use and manage volunteers. We often have people who tell us that they would like to help, but we haven't been able to convert a lot of that into usable energy. The blame lies completely with us – I would assume that it's not the volunteers that are different here. So what can we do to better harness our volunteer bases?

I asked Judge Jay Yoon and the CC Korea volunteers for their opinion. Before I did, though, one thing I really noticed was the genuine care that Judge Yoon has for the volunteers. He visibly encourages their participation and provides support. I really suspect that the key to successfully managing volunteers is compassion, enthusiasm, and leadership.

When I spoke to the CC Korea team, they told me that volunteers come in from all over, and seem to come in fairly large batches. The existing volunteers spend a considerable amount of time introducing the new volunteers to the organisation – even running classes on copyright law to get everyone up to speed. They see a fairly strong drop-out rate – up to half of the volunteers don't come more than few times – but have regular meetings to ensure that momentum continues. Meetings and organisation seem to be a bit of an adhocracy at times, with self-organising groups forming around particular projects.

As far as institutional support goes, the CC project has some limited funds to help and encourage the volunteers – they all get business cards, which helps with group identity, and there is some funding support available for travel to events such as this conference. Mainly, however, I got the feeling that the volunteers took away a sense that they were really helping with and participating in something exciting. The enthusiasm shown by both the project leaders and the participants was actually quite infectious.

One thing that was interesting was Judge Yoon's comment that he felt that he needed to employ one or two full time community managers to continue working with the volunteer base. This is certainly something that we've neglected in the past – usually because all of the team is too busy already to dedicate serious time to community management.

All of this is particularly important to my new role as head of EFA. We've been a fully volunteer-run organisation for the past few years, and we simply don't have the labour force on the Board to do everything we want (indeed, even to keep up with what we need to do). I have recently been trying to grow our volunteer base as a response. I am trying to encourage interested people to help write submissions (eg, DBCDE submission, due tomorrow) and other materials, as well as other projects we're working on. It has so far proved a fairly slow process, but I have high hopes. I think that primarily I have to lead by example and communicate some enthusiasm to potential volunteers. I think I also need to reduce barriers to participation – I've now created a wiki and broken up many of the projects into smaller tasks. Importantly, I think I also need to create some sort of feedback loop, so that I can effectively communicate my appreciation to everyone who helps out in the project.

I would be interested to hear other peoples' experience with volunteer management. If you have any tips on how we can be more effective – i.e., get more done – then I'd be happy to listen. I think that a large mistake that we have made in the past has been to focus exclusively on the tasks at hand and not worry enough about how we can distribute the load – meaning we don't get as much done as we could.