Volunteers are not always free!

One big difference between a commercial business and a social business is the dependence on voluntary contributions by people of their time and effort.

In every start-up people depend on those around them in the early stages, for skills, for time, sometimes even just to be present with you, as you soldier through the start-up journey.

Understand the expectations

As an enterprise gets traction, this changes. The enterprise will begin to gather in the critical skills it needs, growing the team that enterprise needs. The team can grow through finding co-founders, gaining access to advisors and hiring in those skills it needs. Pretty quickly the enterprise becomes an entity of its own with clear needs. The commercial reality that it operates in helps this, and also helps with the understanding of the expectations of all those involved – what they contribute, how they must do things and what they get in return.

In social enterprises this often happens in a more unstructured way – indeed in many social enterprises a voluntary component remains at its heart. This changes the dynamic of the organisation as it grows.

The tension

A volunteer is exactly that – someone freely giving of their time and skills to help the social mission you commonly share. As the enterprise grows the realisation that someone is emerging as “the leader” can be difficult for others to recognise. Equally, as the enterprise engages with other bodies, expectations can rise in terms of time commitments, standards that need to be met and the responsiveness to events when they occur. Slowly what was before a favour, done from mutual interest, now comes with requirements and commitments to be met.

The tension this can create, sometimes impacts on the friendships that created the involvement to begin with. Sometimes, the “volunteer” will feel put-upon, that their efforts are presumed upon and not valued. Sometimes on the other side, the “leader” may not feel that they can hold to account a person on the commitments that were made. In these ways, and many others, a strong friendship can slowly be dissolved from a situation where both parties were trying to do their best.

The best approach

Solving this at that point is rarely easy and the best advice is to try not to get to that point at all. The best approach is to have an open conversation early on,  generated by you,  “the leader” with the person, not laying out your expectations but rather asking what they can contribute and letting them understand the dependency on that contribution. Making things explicit helps both and can minimise personal difficulties later on.

Never forget, however, the most important thing, in any enterprise – social or commercial- is a genuine ”thank you” every now and then to indicate the acknowledgement for what they do. Whatever difficulties the journey fires at you, it is amazing how something as simple as this helps find a path out of many difficulties.