Case Study - Project SPUD - Managing a Volunteer Project to Sell Baked Potatoes
A representative from a community church approached me to manage an eight week fundraising project, codenamed SPUD. The project goal was to "Host a booth and sell baked potatoes at a multi-day local fair". Church leaders decided that this would be an appropriate project to serve the community, provide fellowship opportunities and raise funds for the church. The church had not organized this event in the recent past and had no historical data on which to base expectations or feasibility. The church needed a seasoned professional project manager to successfully engage and lead volunteers to complete the project. The representative had brainstormed a few ideas on what the project should look like and identified key people in the congregation as lead members of the core project team. The project needed a leader to bring the concept to fruition.
I accepted the project and applied professional project management skills to lead this volunteer effort. Volunteer projects face challenges that are not encountered on commercial projects in large organizations and the leader of volunteer projects needs to adapt to these challenges. Key challenges that managers of volunteer projects must plan for:
1. There is no existing organizational structure or project management culture to operate in. I created a schedule of weekly meetings, created a structure for each meeting and created a contact list for team members. Volunteer projects require more work from the project leader to create the project structure and familiarize all team members with the organizational structure that will be used for the project.
2. Volunteer team members are in diverse professional disciplines. Volunteer project leaders must accommodate these enormously diverse backgrounds and tailor communications to the level where every team member understands expectations. Volunteer project leaders cannot assume that everyone on the team is familiar with project management jargon that is commonly used in organizations with mature project management methodologies in place.
3. Project sponsors such as the church council don't know how to offer the information that a project leader expects at the start of the project, such as communication requirements and financial budget. I proactively reached out to the community church representative on this project and requested the information which would normally have been decided on before a commercial project was launched. Leaders of volunteer projects must expect to educate project stakeholders, project team members and project sponsors during the project on what is expected of them in their various roles.
4. Volunteer team members are dedicated to the cause and volunteer extra effort to ensure the success of the project, even when it is not their assigned task. Leaders of volunteer projects can expect this willingness to contribute more than is expected of volunteers. However, the leader needs to be specific when asking for volunteers to complete a task and be respectful of volunteer time. Volunteer leaders must be aware that volunteers may choose to not restrict themselves to their assigned tasks on the project plan and volunteer leaders need to stay informed of tasks unexpectedly completed by other project team members.
5. The goals of volunteer projects may be more focused on soft outcomes than commercial outcomes. Project SPUD had multiple goals and although one goal was to raise funds for the church, the other goals were soft goals including "Provide an opportunity for fellowship". Project SPUD would have been a success even if there was no financial gain to the church. Therefore, leaders of volunteer projects must create an atmosphere of fun and common enjoyment during the project, through actions such as bringing snacks to each team meeting, and making sure to not overload any volunteer with project commitments.
6. Expect longer turnaround and response times on volunteer projects. Volunteers have other priorities and days may pass before you get a response to an email from your project team members. Volunteer project leaders must build extra lead time into the project plan to accommodate the fact that volunteer work is 'best-effort'.
Specifically, I applied the following professional project management techniques to lead the team of volunteers. I created a project team structure, created "roles and responsibilities" for the team leads, developed and updated the project plan, created and distributed meeting agendas and minutes after meetings. I facilitated team meetings, maintained the issues log, and followed up on work assigned to volunteers. I reported out status to the church council and congregation as part of the communication plan to stakeholders. I facilitated the lessons learned session and captured lessons that provide a strong starting point for similar projects in the future.
Project SPUD was an enormous success. We project raised funds for the church and met the objectives envisioned by the sponsors. We sold potatoes, raised funds, gave church members new opportunities for fellowship, raised the church profile in the community and had fun. Volunteer team members and stakeholders learned project management principles which they can apply to future volunteer and commercial projects. I received feedback from church members such as "This was the best managed project that I have ever been involved in with this church" and "The project ran like clockwork".
The methodology and best practices that delivered project SPUD can be applied to volunteer projects around the world. Contact me if you could benefit from professional service in delivering volunteer projects for your church or civic organization.