How To Get People to Work for Free—and Love It!

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volunteer group raising hands against blue sky background Can you imagine resourcing and building a world-class enterprise using a workforce largely composed of team members who receive no financial compensation for their efforts? And who enjoy it?

As many of you may be aware, many organizations, most notably in the software space, do command large armies of willing volunteers to help them develop their services. Examples that spring to mind are WordPress, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, Magento, Open Office, and Ubuntu.

These are open source software packages that work on the basic principle that a software developer publishes their software under an open license and other developers are free to use, develop and improve it, but they won’t be paid for their endeavors.

The staggering thing is that thousands of developers flock to these projects and spend weeks, months and years of their lives improving the system and yet do not receive any compensation.

Question: As a recruiter or employer, would you relish the challenge of finding skilled, professional resources for a project for which they would not receive any compensation? Inventing a perpetual motion machine might be an easier task. If you were tasked with attracting an army of willing and able volunteers to help you develop the next Wikipedia or Linux, how would you do it?

There are plenty of failed attempts to do this, so it’s not easy and should not be taken for granted. I’ve set out several steps to take to help you achieve this:

1. Inspiring vision to capture imaginations and create energy

If the project does not have a clear vision and road map, it may be doomed to failure from the start. All the successful volunteer projects have a compelling vision at the heart of the project. This may be nothing more than a mission statement, which should indicate that the project is bringing something beneficial to the world at large. It needs to inspire and capture the imagination of people and make them feel that they will be a participant in something that impacts the world in a significant, inventive, and positive way.

2. Develop a road map to show longevity and inspire confidence

Lots of people have visions but very few people follow through on them. The internet is littered with an array of defunct volunteer collaboration projects and if you want to attract resources you have to make them believe that your project will be around for a long time.

Develop a road map for your vision that sets out what your key milestones, goals, tasks and desired outputs are for the next two to five years, along with funding sources for any necessary expenses such as servers, office space, advertising etc. It must be credible if it is too inspire confidence and attract potential volunteers.

 3. Create job descriptions to show a focus on detail

This is the bread and butter of recruitment. We all know how to do this. Create job descriptions for each task or collection of tasks that were identified in the road map above. This will be the essential marketing document that can be placed on the website and shared across social networks in order to attract and recruit volunteers. It should be clear that it is a volunteer role, and be in no way confused with a paying role, or the project will quickly lose any charitable sentiment that surrounds it, which would be a crushing blow to your ambitions. The vision and road map should also be included in the job description.

4. Build a static web presence so passers-by can find you

Build a website that clearly sets out your project, its visions, its road map, roles and responsibilities. The website should also communicate your desire to find volunteers to contribute to your exciting venture. You’ll also want to be on Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. This will be your static recruitment platform. Engage in marketing to attract visitors to your recruitment pages.

5. Attracting volunteers to join the vision

Jobs boards may not be an ideal place to advertise for volunteer talent as many of them do not permit advertisements for jobs that don’t pay a salary. Also, users expect to be able to find paying jobs on jobs boards, which means that in this context your advert may serve as a disappointment. This is not a good way to engender charitable sentiment for your project, something you need if your project is to get off the ground.

Communication will need to be viral. You’d need to engage in a viral marketing campaign, which involves engaging with potential volunteers by blogging, commenting on blogs, getting involved in social media discussions, tweeting, updating, search engine optimization and so on.

By Kazim Ladimeji