At this year’s Council of Science Editors (CSE) Annual Meeting, I moderated a session about managing volunteers. This is something that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to and have written a bit about before.

Many publication managers manage volunteer editors and their boards. For my team at ASCE, the challenge of having 36 journals is having 36 editorial boards to manage. I didn’t really have a sense of what that meant until we pulled the numbers and found that at any given moment, we have between 750-850 editors, associate editors, section editors, and guest editors working on the journals. That’s a lot of people!


Across ASCE, there are an additional 12,000-15,000 people working on committees. Many of these people volunteer for more than one committee. Recently I participated in planning and facilitating a training session for staff about managing volunteers. In the preparation, we found that no two departments seem to have the same basic set of processes about managing the ASCE committees. Given the overlap of individuals volunteering, it is really in our best interest to have some continuity between staff and volunteer interactions.

During the session at CSE, I asked the room of 50 or so colleagues how many manage volunteers. All but two hands went up. I asked how many have ever received training specifically on managing volunteers. No one raised their hands.

When you manage staff, there is a power dynamic that benefits the organization and the manager. Likely everyone works for you and they may like to keep working for you in order to get paid. They probably receive an annual performance evaluation that you are going to provide for them. They are in a position of wanting to please you. Even the coolest, most laid-back and collaborative boss has this underlying dynamic working for them.

The volunteer dynamic is basically the opposite. If you manage volunteers, then you work for them. At most societies (and definitely those where I’ve worked) that volunteer is sacred. This person willingly gives up their time, that “thing” that is of most value, and donates it to a cause they feel passionate about. You just happen to be paid by that cause. It rarely matters if you feel passionate about the cause of the organization, though it certainly helps keep you motivated.

Volunteers who are members hold an even more powerful spot as someone who not only donates time, but also sees value in paying for the benefit.

Your power dynamic is flipped. The volunteer is not beholden to you for anything and in fact, they know that you are highly dependent on them. So how do you manage them, inspire them, and motivate them to work toward your goals?

I asked Katherine Bennett of ASTRO to join my CSE panel and talk about her philosophy of managing editorial boards. She stressed the importance of realizing that accountability and empowerment go hand in hand. Think about your team of staff members. They do their best work when they have goals, know they are accountable for their actions (or inaction), and feel that they are empowered to make real changes. The same dynamic holds true for volunteers.

If you manage volunteers, then you work for them.

Also joining the discussion was Gordon McPherson of IEEE. Gordon has a lot of experience working with society governance committees, some in publications but also other areas of society life. He talked about being the “trusted business advisor” and strong partner to a committee.

The role of a staff partner for a volunteer committee really should be that of an expert advisor. Sometimes the hardest thing to establish when you walk into an editorial board meeting is that you are the publishing professional in the room. The volunteers are likely content experts but know very little about publishing. Firmly and respectfully establishing yourself as the publishing expert goes a long way to setting up the volunteer staff relationship.

There are different ways to exert that expertise:

  • Try to answer questions framed as industry best practices.
  • Know what other journals are doing because they will ask you.
  • Be on top of industry trends and services.
  • When they make wild assumptions, have some data to set them straight.
  • Put time on the agenda to share something new happening in the industry.

While you may not get the respect you deserve as an expert at the first meeting, keep working on it. Establishing expertise can be particularly difficult for women, especially in journal fields dominated by men. All of my editorial board meetings are 90% men in powerful positions within their field. There are many times where I am the only woman in the room. Almost always, the only women in the meeting are staff. Sometimes we need to work extra hard to ensure that we are not thought of as “the ladies in the home office.”

Motivating volunteers can be all over the place. As stated earlier, staff are motivated to get paid. Volunteers on the other hand are motivated to make a difference. They are giving up their time because they feel they can make a difference to the cause or their profession. Use that power. With publications, focus on impact and not dollars. Talk about the journal’s strengths while introducing ways it could improve. Ask for their input — it’s why they are there.

While you want your volunteers to be active in moving forward, you need to be able to manage expectations when you see them veer off the road. Goal setting is important. A committee without a clear charge is just asking for disaster. Make sure everyone in the room knows why they are there. Insist on agendas so you at least have a roadmap and an idea of what they want to talk about. This helps in being prepared.

It is important to have a good relationship with the chair or the editor in chief. He or she should be reining in the wanderers. Having a one-on-one follow up call with the editor and sharing your perceptions of where things went off the rails could be really helpful.

Staff are motivated to get paid. Volunteers on the other hand are motivated to make a difference. They are giving up their time because they feel they can make a difference to the cause or their profession. Use that power.

One question that come up at any discussion on volunteers is what to do when there is conflict. This is very tricky territory. When possible, get volunteers to manage conflict with other volunteers. Hearing difficult news from a peer is easier and the power dynamic is balanced.

I have been a volunteer for as long as I can remember. Some of my engagements are short and easy (classroom help, neighborhood functions committee) and others more intense (CSE Board, Relay For Life planning committee, Girl Scout troop leader). With all of these experiences, I have learned how I like to be treated as a volunteer. I have felt appreciated and taken advantage of. I have felt motivated and demoralized. I’ve raised my hand to do more and I’ve walked away disappointed. I’ve shown up energized, and I have had the energy sucked out of me.

Here are my take home tips:

  1. Be respectful of the volunteers’ time. Keep meetings on track. Do the prep work ahead of time. Get back to them quickly if asked for information you don’t know. Connect them to the right person if that’s not you.
  2. Recognize when a volunteer is overwhelmed and give them an out. When an editor is slowing down, I like to send them a note or give them a call to see if everything is okay and if they need some help. Often they will thank you for the lifeline and either take the help or decide they can’t do the job anymore.
  3. Think about succession planning. Try to identify those energetic rising stars and find things for them to do to stay engaged until a big job is ready for them to take on.
  4. Always try to be fair. Include those individuals that should be included and avoid letting volunteers form cliques. This is not a social club. The freeloaders need to move on and the new talent needs space to thrive.
  5. Don’t be afraid of critical feedback. Let them tell you what they think you or your organization does poorly. Gather feedback from them about what other groups do better. Explain your side in a calm, non-defensive manner and thank them for the feedback. Let them know that you will take it back to the office and think about what can or cannot be implemented and then let them know what you decided.
  6. Say no when you need to say no. If your volunteers are asking for something that just can’t be done or are not in line with the goals of the organization, explain that you can’t do that. Say yes, when you can! If it feels like a knee jerk reaction to say no, then stop yourself. It’s perfectly fine to tell them that you need to think about it and get back to them later.
  7. Thank them every chance you get. Begin every meeting thanking them for being there and end it thanking them for their dedication to the program or society. Share small successes with the editors so they feel the forward momentum.

It’s a shame that more of us don’t get formal training on how to do this. While there are resources online you may be able to find the perfect trainer right in your society or company. Identify really effective staff partners in your organization and ask if you can attend a few of their meetings.

The best advice I can give you is to become a volunteer. Pick something you are interested in or look to professional organizations like SSP and CSE and dive in. The best volunteer training is to be a volunteer yourself.

I’m sure many of you have tried and true advice. Share them in the comments so we can make this a real resource for training.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.


6 Thoughts on "Managing Volunteers: An Overlooked Skill"

Thank you for addressing this often overlooked issue. I have been doing most of this by instinct, but it is always reassuring to know one is on the right path. I also like to send notes, and publicly recognize extra effort, and success, as much as possible. Although most people that engage in volunteer work are not seeking recognition, it is always nice to know the work is being appreciated.

Thank you for addressing this topic, Angela. You provided some helpful advice.

My experience as director of a press that published a dozen journals was that I had a lot of interaction with editors and associate editors but almost none, and rarely, with members of editorial boards. The one time I most often consulted them was when one editor stepped down and another needed to be appointed.

There is another kind of volunteer not mentioned here–the student intern. Probably there are few such interns working for commercial publishers in their journals divisions, but at university presses this is a common circumstance. Student interns sometimes get course credit, sometimes are paid (though often not), and mainly benefit by being exposed to a possible career choice in the future. It is importamt to make sure that their experience is meaningful and that they not be treated just as filing clerks doing menial tasks. That often requires a fair amount of planning so that both the interns and the press mutually gain from their presence. The dynamic here differs both from what it is with the academic who edit journals and from what it is with the regular publishing staff.

Thanks Angela, good stuff! I wanted to second your point about giving volunteers “an out” if necessary, so that the work can be reassigned to others instead of not getting done at all. I find that when commitment wanes just as there’s important work to be done, an effective conversation to have consists of a personal email or phone call to let the volunteer know that while their help is both appreciated and needed, you recognize that they have a “day job” and ask permission to get them some help.

As a note to the anonymous commenter who left two comments under different aliases, all comments at this blog are moderated for tone and for offering a useful contribution to the discussion. Please see information on our commenting policy here:
I’d have sent you a note directly but you used fake names and fake email addresses so this was not possible.

This is excellent advice. Thanks so much! What you share here is applicable to working with all volunteers, not just ones working in publications. And your advice about becoming a volunteer is the most valuable. I know I am a better executive having served in some rough volunteer roles and it made me look for the right fit when becoming a volunteer. I’m printing this one out. It is a keeper!

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