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2019:Volunteer/Case study

From Wikimania

Case Study – Volunteering at Wikimania in 2019[edit | edit source]

What was the issue?[edit | edit source]

Wikimedia Sverige was chosen to host Wikimania 2019, which took place in Stockholm from 14 – 18 August. We set up ambitious goals for the conference, related to recording of sessions, communication of outcome, logistics and taking care of attendees. We wanted all sessions that did not explicitly request otherwise to be documented; we wanted awareness and visibility in Sweden and likewise to spread the conference outcome to local communities of our global movement; and we wanted all sessions to be overseen by able volunteers. To warmly greet the attendees, we wanted volunteers to be present at the airport with a desk outside the arrival terminal, and at the venue, we wanted to have enough volunteers so that attendees could get help in the help desk, to find their ways around the venues, and feel that their safety and wellbeing was ensured.

All in all, these goals in total required an ambitious work with volunteers. A volunteer strategy was proposed early during the year, starting from zero involvement and leading up to able volunteership at a 1000-people conference. Fulfilling the goals required a strategic, practical and hard work.

Who did you engage with?[edit | edit source]

The main actors involved were Eric Luth, conference general and volunteer manager (Wikimedia Sverige staff), and Anass Sedrati, volunteer coordinator (Wikimedia Sverige volunteer).

Part of the strategy was to delegate responsibility to more actors, both to mitigate risks and to train a larger pool of able volunteers. Track coordinators were thus chosen for each tracks: one for conference heroes, one for communication experts, one for knowledge savers and one for ambassadors.

Due to personal reasons, two track coordinators had to step down, one previous months before the conference, the other during the conference week.

What did you do?[edit | edit source]

To fulfill the goal, we started by developing a strategy. We studied other organizations’ volunteer strategy and made a thorough research. Based on our findings, and the nature of both Wikimania and the Wikimedia movement, we drafted a proposal. The proposal consisted of, among other things, ideas on how to strategically recruit new volunteers, how to train and nurture them, how to give room for their personal development and how to give them feedback; and finally, how to retain them afterwards.

The strategy was followed by a volunteer plan, which however was not properly developed due to an increasing lack of time. Attempts were also made to develop a risk management plan, to prepare for possible risks as well as mitigating their effects. This plan was unfortunately not properly integrated into our work either.

In March, Eric and Anass had initial meetings to discuss how to proceed. Attempts were made to delineate all possible tasks to perform. Given the lack of information from previous organizers, it was hard to predict where volunteers were needed and where not to. The list was thus not much more than a guesstimate. In spite of this, the tasks were categorized into four tracks, and it was decided that each track should be led by a coordinator.

The next step was to try to identify, thus, four possible track coordinators. We wanted rather to handpick these than to open up for an application. The reason for this was twofold. We wanted to be sure that the coordinators we chose were able and could handle such a big project as Wikimania. Furthermore, we wanted to have the coordinators chosen before any public volunteer application process was started.

When these were chosen, we first started with bi-weekly meetings to prepare material, plans and structures for handling such a large amount of volunteers. The closer we got, the more frequent these meetings got. After a while, we started having almost weekly meetings also with each of the coordinators. We had one common application process which was only reachable for Eric and Anass, but Anass distributed all volunteers to the coordinators according to what preferred tracks they had indicated in the application form. They were allowed to choose a first hand and second hand alternative; the idea was that they should be able to volunteer within a track whose tasks they liked, but also that we should be able to match volunteers with what kind of tasks were actually needed.

The form was spread in several different ways: the link was spread via social media accounts. We printed posters that were put up at the university campus, around the university dorms and similar places where the target group of master and PhD students could be found. The closer to the event, when we realized for which tasks volunteers were still lacking, we also made advertisements directed to different groups according to our need. To this end, we used volontärbyrån.se and also an NGO which helped us reach out to university students in sustainability in their networks.

With over 150 applications in total, we had a decent amount of applicants to choose from, in order to get an able base of volunteers. Personal interviews were held with the suitable applicants, and little by little, we arrived at a manageable number of volunteers, able for their different tasks. At this point, Anass developed different spreadsheet templates for the coordinators to use: a resource calendar where volunteers could fill in their available times, a master schedule by which the coordinators could schedule their volunteers according to the information in their resource calendars; and finally individual schedules, a crucial thing given the large amount of information in the master schedule, but a very time consuming thing to make for all (given that more than 60 volunteers were involved in the end). The master schedule got almost too big, which was a result of the very large amount of spaces, and their very different and specific demands for recording and room angels.

In order to prepare the volunteers for the event, and also to make sure that volunteering was fun and rewarding and not only a demanding and boring task, we started having social events throughout the summer, sometimes at the Wikimedia Sverige office and sometimes out in the sun. This was a way of getting them to know each other, so that friendship and laughter was a given thing of volunteering at Wikimania 2019.

As another way of opening up for team building, we arranged CPR training for all volunteers. In the end, more than 25 volunteers did the training. This made sure that there was a decent amount of CPR trained people at the conference, but it also proved to be a good team building activity.

With these preparations, we were ready to enter the conference week. Volunteers had to help out from Monday to Sunday, on Monday and Tuesday to set up the registration desk, prepare some of the rooms and make some other small tasks. Some 7-10 volunteers were needed from Monday to Tuesday.

From Tuesday to Thursday, we had volunteers at the airport to great attendees arriving. We scheduled so that there were always at least two people at the airport, of which one a staff member. This because it is a demanding task to be stationed at the airport: it is public and attracts questions, and it is lonely and far away from the venue, and thus not appropriate to place only one new volunteer at. It was appreciated by many to be greeted by the volunteers at the airport.

On Wednesday, the pre-conference days started. At that point, we had to have more volunteers at the registration desk and human arrows to show the way around. Wednesday and Thursday was still, however, relatively calm, as all hackathon attendees were required to function as volunteers themselves.

The most intense part began however on Friday, with the opening of the main conference. The number of attendees doubled, it was hectic in the registration desk and a lot of people had to find their way for the first day. About a thousand people were to be driven by buses to the City Hall, and everything had to run as smoothly as possible. After lunch, sessions began in as much as 16 parallel rooms at most. Not all rooms were however in use at all times, and not all rooms needed help with documentation or room angels. This made the information management very complex.

In spite of this, most things ran relatively smoothly. It got chaotic in the middle of the day, but because of the training, preparation and scheduling, the volunteers were able to perform their tasks diligently. Some of them experienced it as chaotic, which it was, but for the attendees, we believe that this was not much noticed.

What was the impact?[edit | edit source]

With the help of the volunteers, Wikimania 2019 was a success. The more than 50 people that dedicated their free time to perform tasks for the Wikimedia Movement was the difference between a good and a great conference. The registration desk, the recording and the logistical work could not have been done without them. It was thus crucial to have them, and they did what was required and much more than that.

Comments from attendees tell that the volunteers were able, welcoming, often smiling and very professional. They were always trying to solve problems that arose, and took own initiatives. This is a proof of competence, and we are thus very happy with the work.

What barriers, challenges or points of learning did you identify?[edit | edit source]

Two of the track coordinators had to step down for personal (and indeed legitimate) reasons, one several months before Wikimania and one during the conference week. The latter case created a lot of trouble, especially for Anass and Eric, who, with more than full time work already planned during the week, had to share the capacity of a third full time volunteer. This was all handled, but with alternative costs and with a lot of extra work from Eric and Anass. Except for those two, few or no volunteers “disappeared” with short notice; why it happened to be track coordinators is important to consider. One hypothesis is that the responsibility that was mitigated was more than what it was possible to handle for people without any financial compensation, given normal life tasks.

We wanted to let volunteers decide first hand and second hand what tracks they wanted to volunteer within, to match requirements and needs with what the individual volunteer wanted to do. While this likely enhanced their work ethic and willingness to volunteer, it created a lot of extra work for coordinators. One problem was that we didn’t properly communicate to the track coordinators whether a volunteer had been allotted already to another track, which meant that a lot of volunteers were contacted twice by two different coordinators. This lead to some confusion from volunteers, and is not a very professional way to coordinate volunteering. A good idea on how to make this better, while maintaining the idea that volunteer wishes should be matched with needs, is yet to be found.  

Comments from several volunteers say that, while it was sometime hectic, there could also be long times without any tasks to perform, and thus an experience of dead time. While it is hard to avoid, given the uneven distribution of needs in terms of time, we believe that at least two factors contributed to more dead time than necessary: from the local hosts side, an idea that ‘backup roles’ were needed for many chores, including for safety; from the WMF team’s side an occasional lack of perspective on how to provide meaning and development for the volunteers, while rather seeing them as “hands” to simply perform tasks. While the first point also meant that there were enough volunteers to do tasks that were unforeseen, and to cover up for others who were late etc., for next year’s organizers, we believe that there is no need for extra backup for safety and similar roles. It is good with CPR training for all volunteers, but they need not be scheduled specifically, as long as there is always someone on the venue with the proper training.