Knowledge Trade-offs: From Volunteering to Managing Technical Communications Projects and Teams

Volunteering vs. Employment or “The difference is I don’t get paid!”  --

I take my volunteer jobs quite seriously – almost as seriously as my professional paid positions as a technical communications practitioner, editor, and  manager of projects and teams.  I even attribute some of my professional abilities to opportunities I had as a volunteer to hone my management skills. 

My role models (a couple now in their 90s), lured me into several uniquely complex volunteer activities.  Some ventures involved theater productions – other successful technical communications project managers have told me of similar apprenticeships.  I remember producing the Wizard of Oz in Malaysia -- soloists in English with four different first languages; 50 singing Munchkins under age 12; a cast of 100s to be costumed; complex sets, lighting, and special effects; an orchestra; publicity; and the first night presence of the Sultan of Selangor – to see his daughter who was Dorothy.  And, my mentors insisting that the only thing volunteer about our efforts was the lack of remuneration

Managing a technical communications team or department; leading an STC chapter or a   volunteer activity for STC related to a conference or technical publications competition; presenting a 4-hour workshop or 15-minute progression – all can be challenging, and rewarding.  And, STC volunteer managers take their self-assigned responsibilities very seriously! 

Daffodils Days or “Why I became a technical communications manager!”

Fun aside, some volunteer projects have a dark side.  There are two distinct groups in most volunteer-dependent professional or charitable organizations -- the group of loyal volunteers and the staff (or the unpaid leader in a staff position).  The volunteers do the fun stuff, and often the staff takes responsibility for the underpinnings and less desirable tasks.  I have lived in both roles.

As the paid Director of Development for a very large charitable organization, I was the manager of the fund-raising staff supporting 8,000 volunteers.  The work was rewarding, but not nearly as much fun as being one of the volunteers.  Take daffodils for example – please!

Known as the “flower of hope,” daffodils were the focus of a major fundraiser.  Sponsoring companies and individuals ordered daffodils; the inexpensive bunches were shipped from Washington state; and volunteers sorted and delivered them to smiling recipients.  What better event? 

As the staff manager, I allowed myself to believe during my first Daffodil Days that everything was under control.  So, when someone asked me exactly who would receive the delivery of the crates of tightly bound and closed daffodil buds, I didn’t panic. 

“We’ll have them delivered to the office,” I said confidently, decisively.  Glib, but wrong answer!  The arrival time for a refrigerated 18-wheeler loaded with 20,000 stems of daffodils in crates is unpredictable.  When the flowers are “ready,” they are picked and shipped immediately.  Minor catch:  if the ‘daffies’ get warm before being unpacked from the crates, the buds will begin to open in the box, and crush each other.  “

 “Okay, well, we need a cold place that is always open.  How about we take delivery at the County Morgue?”  Trivial caution:  if the only night attendant has to go make a pick up, no one will be available to receive the flowers.

So,on Friday night I received a call that  the truck would arrive around midnight.  Nobody answered at the morgue.   Patched through to the trucker, I spontaneously “volunteered” to have the flowers delivered to my front door.  At 2 am, the sound of grinding gears and groaning generator for the refrigeration woke up most of the neighborhood.   I stumbled downstairs to tell the trucker where to put the crates. 

Alas, truck drivers don’t unload trucks.  Another union.  Fortunately, my family (and a neighbor that couldn’t sleep anyway) could be pressed into service at 2 am.  By 4 am, we had a porch full of boxes to be kept cool, and the truck was again out of my neighborhood with no visit from the police. 

Early next morning, we loaded crates, hauled them to the office, and set the air conditioner below 60°.  Cheerful, rested volunteers came in, began cutting stems, filling black plastic bag-lined boxes with water, and standing up bunches to open naturally.  Saturday and Sunday nights while the ‘daffies’ opened silently and alone, I dreamt of a roomful of dead daffodils with leaking water everywhere.


On Monday morning, I walked into a cold room full of joyful yellow blooms and delicate slight scent.  And announced, “this is wonderful, what a rewarding project”…but, that other silent thought came “surely there is another way to make a living, develop my career, and practice managing complex projects.”  And here I am a technical communicator, project manager, and volunteer for the Society for Technical Communications.

Judith Herr, Sept. 2002.  previous version  published March 2000 in Management SIG Newsletter

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