I recently ran a survey of 25 Community Managers from around the web and asked them 5 short questions about how they use Volunteer Moderators in their online communities. I’ve worked with roughly 40 volunteer mods in the various communities I’ve worked in and the experiences have been all across the board in terms of success.
There’s something about giving even “lite” powers to a stranger from the web that’s a little scary to me, so I wanted to seek the insights of others in my field to get a feel for what the average Community Manager is doing to with their volunteer mods and how they approach their use. Here’s what I learned:
1. “How long should a user have been a member of the community before they’re eligible to become a moderator?”
Answers here varied pretty wildly. Out of the responses that provided a numerical timeframe, the average was 7.5 months of community involvement. Everyone who answered with a timeframe under 3 months said that they could tell whether a user had volunteer potential by quality of their contributions and more than one person said that a long time in the community wasn’t necessarily an indicator that they’d be a good candidate.
Overall, my greatest takeaway was that users can be judged on how “helpful” they already are before they’re allowed to become part of your team.
2. “How frequently do you contact your volunteer moderators to “check in” and share new goals?”
I wanted to get a feel for how often you need contact your volunteers to tell them how to prioritize their time, get them up to speed on any “fires” that might need putting out and direct their efforts within the community.
On average, Community Managers check in with their volunteers every 6.5 days, or roughly once a week. Generally, volunteers can be left to their own devices but people who checked in more often seemed more pleased with the overall quality of their volunteers and had the least amount of problems with them. It would seem that autonomy is a dangerous thing when using volunteers. More than a few of those surveyed said something to the effect of “Not as often as I should.”
3. Do you give your volunteers the power to “ban” users from the community without your approval?
34% of Community Managers surveyed allow their volunteer moderators to ban users from the community. Several reported requiring the approval of a CM, or providing only the ability to ban a user temporarily. 3 CM’s told me that they have a “suspension” or temporary ban feature for their volunteers but the power to ban a user permanently lies with the staff only.
4. Do all of your volunteer moderators have a visual callout that tells other members that they have administrator powers? If not, why not?
7.5% of Community Managers don’t require a visual callout for their volunteer moderators.
The rest of the group was in agreement that allowing unmarked moderators led to a “secret police” feeling that was bad for the health of their communities. A key concept I noted was that by marking volunteers as different from the other community members, you imbue them with a respect that helps new users benefit from their advice. New users don’t like being told what to do by other community members so using a visual callout of Moderator status provides a separation between Volunteers and the community at large.
5. “How do you handle Volunteer Moderators who have overstepped their bounds?
There are several approaches to this situation. The majority of you said that when something like this happens, after being stripped of their powers the user often leaves the community of their own volition. One approach I thought was quite interesting was from a Community Manager who wrote that they use Volunteers on a rotating, yearly basis. If a volunteer isn’t up to snuff, they simply aren’t asked to rejoin. This won’t work for everyone but I liked that it incentivizes volunteers to do their very best work.
This quote summed up the best practice for me personally: “People make mistakes. Everyone needs to be handled with dignity.” Volunteer Moderators are real people with a stronger than average want to help and be a member of the community they take part in, so even when they go overboard, they should be treated with respect.
In conclusion, I think the biggest things to learn from this survey is that every person who wants to be a volunteer moderator has to be assessed and interacted with as an individual. Losing track of your mods or treating them as all the same might be worse than not having them at all. And check in more often – it strengthens your working relationship with your volunteers and gives you even more control of how they work and help your community.
Finally, I wanted to share this “additional comment” I received.
“Volunteers help with scaling a large community but the majority of companies/orgs in my experience grossly underestimate the time and energy (including emotional) expended on volunteers. Volunteers have a range of motivations, of which they’re not always self-aware. Many do so for status & reputation which needs to be managed carefully. Others do so for a genuine love of giving back to the community and enjoy being rewarded by members. Almost all want recognition, and often more than is easy to give. Although I think a volunteer system in many communities has a lot of strengths, the weaknesses must be assessed. If a company is to build a financially viable community it should consider carefully how it will resource the community.”
I’d like to thank all the great people who participated in this survey. I sourced most of my Community Managers from the following (excellent!) LinkedIn Groups:
If you participated, please let me know in the comments and share your opinion on the results and thank you again for your comments!
photo by Sterling College