Running a fluid and democratic volunteer-run organisation

Summary of tools, processes and theory behind an alternate open structure of management

Hera Hussain
Oct 12, 2015 · 27 min read

I started Chayn, an open source gender and tech project empowering women against violence, over 2 years ago. Since then, we have launched two crowdsourced platforms, three international toolkits and run two hackathons. All of this kicked off on £500 and despite our growth, our budget remains a few thousand pounds. We’ve got 70 volunteers from 11 countries, totalling an average of 500 volunteer hours a month and our projects have reached over 60, 000 people around the globe.

So, how did we do it? In this post I’ll explain how we do things at the moment — the result of what has been a long experimental journey of trial and error. This is not a prescriptive piece — but since so many of you have been interested in a written explanation of the “Chayn workflow”, I thought I would do this. I’m a passionate advocate for open source and openly licensed materials. Given the scale of problems our earth is facing, I cannot think of any scenario where we solve them without sharing knowledge and building on each other’s work.


I define community as a group bonding over a shared problem and a common purpose. For Chayn, this is enabling women facing violence to become independent and happy.

Here’s the most important thing: Our biggest resource is the volunteers so we’ve tried to create a workflow and project portfolio that will get the best return on volunteer time in order to create the maximum dent in one of the biggest problems in our society. As a serial volunteer, I am well aware of how difficult it is to make time for volunteering.

We want to achieve the maximum with the minimum.

Contrary to what may come to mind when you think of open source/crowdsourcing communities — the successful ones are full of discipline, a code of behaviour and processes that enable free flow of ideas, formation of bonds and incredible impetus.

Chayn is no different.

As the Founder of a 100% volunteer-run charity/social enterprise (we’re still figuring this out) with a full time job, I don’t have much time. In fact, when I started Chayn 2.5 years ago (I was 23 at that time), I took a 3 month break and in those 3–4 months, I worked 70 hours/week on building a community from scratch. Over the past 2.5 years, thanks to what you’re about to read below, I’ve been able to bring this down to 20 hours/week. All of the processes and tools you read below are designed so they are less time intensive (with the exception of a few). The last thing a charity or social enterprise manager wants to do is spend all their time managing a community and neglecting the mission for which that community exists.

There is beauty in organised chaos. Over the course of this piece, I’ll make a case for why processes and discipline do not have to be boring, bureaucratic, cradling and slow.

It’s important to remember that what is true for Chayn may not work for your community. This is perhaps one of the most inconvenient and painful lessons I’ve learnt as a community manager.

Every technique and model needs experimentation and adaptation.

If I had to condense my experience of volunteering for MakeSense and Wikipedia, starting up Chayn’s and OpenCorporates’ community from scratch and participating in the various university societies, StartingBloc and Global Shapers — 4 things have struck me so far that are indicative of a good thriving community.

Here are some questions that can help you litmus test the kind of community you have or want to create:

(1) Incentives and DisciplineWhy do they want to volunteer? What drives them? What are the rules of interaction? Can anyone join or are there strict expectations of volunteers? Are there regular activities? Do people see the result of their work and the impact it has on people? If so, how soon?

(2) Adaptive tasks and fluid systems — What’s the learning curve for a new volunteer? Are there easy tasks for new volunteers to do? Is there variety in terms of time burden required from volunteers? How hierarchical is the organisation? How easy is it to assume or be entrusted with more responsibly?

(3) Support and FeedbackHow much support can they get from the community and community leaders? How soon can they get feedback? How much do they feel valued? Do they feel ownership?

(4) Social and FunDo people get along well? Are there cliches? Is the mood light, collaborative and fun? Are there cool activities for people to do together? They must ‘get’ the concept of the organisation, tasks and must have fun doing it. It’s very important for volunteering to be social in all ways from networking to collective encouragement to ‘down time’.

In the following sections, I’ll explain the comfortable model Chayn has ‘grown into’. This is a long post. If you’re in a rush, just jump to the next section to get a summary of the post.

Here’s what you’ll be reading below:

How Chayn works

Summary of tools, process and the theory of micro-volunteering through a fluid democratic management system

Chayn is a social enterprise startup and we use the lean startup methodology to run projects that empower women against violence using technology. Find more at http://chayn.co.

Tips on facilitating volunteer activity:

Templates can be found at the end of this article.

How people join Chayn

Attracting the right people & making it as easy as possible for people to get engaged.

How do we encourage the ‘right’ people to join?

Definition of the right person: Passionate about empowering women AND will make the time to do something about it. This is critical. This has been one of the hard lessons I have had to learn the painful way. I often say I would take a good 100 volunteers over £100 000. I would go as far as to say that 5 active volunteers are better than 1000 inactive or barely active volunteers.

You know what’s challenging and demoralising as a new volunteer? Having to fill a hundred forms and passing through a million interviews, and waiting months to hear back if you’re ‘approved/allowed’ to volunteer. In fact, having one such experience with a woman’s charity in Glasgow that really demoralised me for a year and drove me to make sure we didn’t do that in Chayn.

Stages

Typeform analytics for Chayn volunteer sign up form

The main thing to ask here is why someone is motivated to volunteer, where they heard about Chayn, where they are based and how they would like to help. I highly recommend using typeform over google forms (we switched to it in Dec’14) — it’s more fluid, renders better on mobile and has in-house analytics (see the picture). I use this to form an initial impression of the volunteers.

“Thanks for signing up to volunteer with Chayn. We’re very excited to hear you’re passionate about women’s empowerment and have a thirst to do something about it. We’re all about action!I’m the Founder of Chayn and I like to have a Skype call with volunteers before they kick off so they can get to know Chayn better, how we run and figure out how they would like to help. We have a variety of people from different backgrounds, skills, locations so there is always something to do!
Please reply back with a time that suits you in the next two weeks! I’m based in London.
Until we talk, please go through our Impact Report from 2014.Speak soon! :)​”

When people join MakeSense, they either record a video clip or post in our main facebook group to introduce themselves by saying: Name. Where they live, Where they are from, What they do, Why they want to join MakeSense and their one “Super power”. e.g. mine was I’m great at communicating with people online and offline.

Additionally, the MakeSense Community Manager will sometimes also message old members of MakeSense and ask them to speak to the new member to encourage them to participate more and welcome them.

In Chayn, we do something similar. I tend to introduce people to help them settle in as it can be daunting to introduce yourself.

Managing volunteers & projects

Tools & Processes to encourage community action

Fluid & rotating — an alternate open structure of management

I hate bureaucracy. I hate asking for permissions and I hate inner clubs. All of these things stifle innovation, hold people back, create a polarising personality cult and disenfranchise contributors leading to a disengaged, old fashioned, ineffective organisation that doesn’t promote new people and new ideas.

What we needed was an open, progressive, and rejuvenating management system. Taking inspiration from MakeSense and Wikipedia — two amazing examples of huge organisations where almost every thing is done by volunteers, and two years of iteration — we have now grown into what feels like an efficient and comfortable workflow.

There are three tiers to Chayn: me, as the Founder overseeing everything; The Executive Team — made up of volunteers and chaired by me, and our community of volunteers.

The Executive Team is a rotating team of volunteers who invest considerable time into Chayn and are extremely passionate and proactive. The Executive Team is responsible for the administration of Chayn as an organization and decisions on strategy. This is not fixed and any volunteer consistently active in the previous cycle and having been part of Chayn for at least two cycles will be invited to join the Executive team. The team roughly spends around 8 hours/week per person running the organisation. Similarly, members of the Executive team can leave if they feel they cannot meet the commitment. We have weekly or biweekly calls, a running facebook and slack stream and no fixed roles. Having no fixed responsibility allows the Executive Team the flexibility to choose tasks — according to their skillset, time schedule and what interests them. The one thing that I have done so far and no one else is onboarding new volunteers and that’s because new volunteers find that very encouraging that they get to speak to the founder from the get go. It’s the antithesis of what a big charity does — we want people to feel welcomed and that they can really make a difference.

Whenever possible, we post meeting notes from our calls in the group and divide tasks as they come along depending on who wants to do it.

The one thing we do that can be considered counterintuitive is that we don’t care as much about skill as we do about passion, commitment and eagerness to collaborate/learn. Skill is an immense asset but so is commitment and that’s harder to find. You would think that it’s highly inefficient to get new volunteers, who may or may not be good at community management and strategy to take on this role and then by the time they get good at it, they have to leave. That’s a fair point and one I’ve thought long and hard about. We want to mobilise the volunteers that we currently have, helping them gain new skills while they are with us and this makes us stronger. An organisation should care about its volunteers growing with it. A few of our volunteers have gone on to start their own social projects or take the learnings from Chayn and make their communities better. A closed or corporate way of viewing this will be that Chayn is suffering from brain drain and our IP is flowing out of our hands. We view this as a success. Not only were they able to make a contribution while they were with us, they gained more skills and are now paying this forward by running their own projects.

In my eyes, Chayn’s impact just doubled.

There is no information off limits to volunteers — no secret; no walls. The only information kept confidential is one that relates to vulnerable women. Everything within Chayn is open, transparent and inclusive. Whenever I need to make difficult decisions, we discuss within Executive Team and then consult the wider Chayn group — consensus or majority of votes usually win unless I make a case otherwise.


Processes to encourage community action

Structure within community helps volunteers organise their lives around volunteer work, makes them more motivated to get involved and provides a framework to operate within. Some of the information you will read here is already mentioned in the Summary section at the start of this piece.

Anatomy of a typical Chayn task request: (1) Description (a few lines), (2) Why it’s important / how it impacts Chayn’s goals, (3) How long it will take, (4) Link to a Google doc with Instructions & a place where the output can go (if required)


Rationale for Spring Cleans

Why Spring Cleans do more good than harm

The idea for a self-fulfilling, self-managed community is a dream we’ve all been chasing. No matter how many Forbes articles you read, the chances are your efforts are resulting in hits and misses. Ours is no different. With not a single person full time or paid in Chayn, we’ve had a strong set of challenges in terms of establishing and maintaining a community that delivers results. From my experience of participating in other communities, I know what I found most useful was transparency and a horizontal meritocratic structure. Chayn is a meritocratic organisation and merit for us, is not the desire to contribute, but it is based on action itself. We want to move away from the legacy model where volunteers who have long ceased to contribute remain. While we really appreciate their contribution in the past, we believe to have a vibrant community, the volunteer in the group must be those who we know we can count on to help, to take initiative and to commit. Volunteers are able to rejoin after 3 months but it is important that we set the terms of the relationship right and get the incentives to be active right as well. We’re able to do so much with so little because our most valuable asset is the will of volunteers to make a positive difference to the lives of vulnerable women.

Here are the three things we notice happen because of Spring Cleans:

(1) Active volunteers become more active & take more responsibility.
(2) People take stock of their own commitments and leave the group accordingly
(3) It weeds out the volunteers who aren’t a good match for Chayn and vice versa.


Tools

The nitty gritty of what we use

Lifecycle of a project

Each project is different which makes it difficult to create a formula which we can run potential ideas against. In general, we try to go for projects that are (1) innovative, (2) lean, (3) rely on the least amount of variables to succeed and (4) enables women “now”.

The following is the lifecycle of a project within Chayn and the workflow we have grown into.

(1) Idea — initial research and defining the minimum viable product
(2) Defining and prioritising tasksfiguring out what needs to happen, when and how much time is required.
(3) Gearing up the tools: This stage starts out with creating an Asana board / Google drive folder, facebook chat of interested volunteers and a Slack channel. Each task needs a description and a google doc with instructions. Where possible, we provide a template for the output in the google doc to assist volunteers.
(4) Delegating tasks — We’ll post tasks along with google doc links and instructions in the group and/or slack.
(5) Recruiting for survivors, and sometimes, experts — We believe in ‘building with, not for’ so we always try to find women who have experienced what we are trying to solve, which includes most Chayn volunteers in any case, but we do additional canvassing to make sure we account for geographic and cultural differences!
(6) Sprints — Organising sprints to accelerate the project and create a momentum within Chayn.
(7) First draft design — Our design volunteers get to work and post the drafts in the group to get feedback.
(8) Intensive internal and external editing — Once a piece of work is complete. We get as many fresh eyes on it as we can through sharing the google docs on a “Comment Only” version.
(9) Improving content and testing it — This involves deliberating over feedback on Slack and calls, as well as testing the content over different devices, browsers and internet speeds.
(10) Launch of version 1 — Whatever it is, it is ready to be seen by the world. Let’s get it out and improve later.


Engaging Volunteers

The stuff just as important as tools and processes

It’s been an interesting but intensive past two years. I went from being a volunteer for MakeSense to managing a complex network of volunteers from different parts of the world, different skill sets and working on an issue considered ‘unsolvable’, especially through tech.

Here are just some tips on working with volunteers I’ve picked up from Wikipedia, MakeSense and Chayn:


Misfits: Things we tried and didn’t work

There is a long list of things that we tried and failed. Some we’ve rejuvenated and trialled again to a fruitful outcome which is refreshing. Here I’m going to through some of them:

Feel like you’ve got a solution for some of these challenges? Drop me a line at hera@chayn.co. There is also a call for ideas on two particular challenges at the end of this post.


What’s coming up ahead:

There are quite a few exciting experiments we’re conducting at the moment which I’ll be sharing later. Here’s a sneak peek:


Templates

Most of these are very simple and made in a way to be useful but easy to fill.

I hope what you’ve read so far has been useful and insightful.

Thanks

Thank you to Nida, Nikki, John and Amy for checking this blogpost and all the mentors, advisors and volunteers who have made Chayn what it is today. Also, I wanted to acknowledge once more is how much of what you see in this is the result of the inspiration I took from MakeSense, Wikipedia and various tech startups. And lastly, if this was useful — thank you to those who encouraged me to write this.

Depending on the response to the piece, I would be happy to keep adding to this piece as we learn more.

Last word: Whatever you do, please do not call this model Heracracy. Please. I beg.

There are two big challenges which remain to be solved and I need your help. If you’ve got any ideas on this, leave a response or comment here so it can benefit all:

CHALLENGE 1: How do we make it easier to interact with people who are passionate about the cause, want to help but in reality, will never do anything substantial for the organisation?

CHALLENGE 2: How do we demonstrate the impact of the work volunteers do, to them? Currently, we (1) post in the facebook group with thanks to tasks done well and cool ideas, (2) feature volunteers of the month and (3) occasionally post feedback from distraught women on projects and how it was of use to them.

Chayn

News and thoughts from our projects around the globe…

Thanks to Amy Johnson, nida sheriff, and Nikki Bourassa

Hera Hussain

Written by

Building communities. Feminist. Pakistani. Open/data. Fighting corruption w/ @opencontracting. Founder @chaynHQ gender rights. Forbes & MIT Under 30/35.

Chayn

Chayn

News and thoughts from our projects around the globe empowering women against abuse through technology.

Hera Hussain

Written by

Building communities. Feminist. Pakistani. Open/data. Fighting corruption w/ @opencontracting. Founder @chaynHQ gender rights. Forbes & MIT Under 30/35.

Chayn

Chayn

News and thoughts from our projects around the globe empowering women against abuse through technology.