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TLDR

A volunteer who is in charged in an important role is so busy to have time to work on an urgent task. I understand that I cannot apply professional deadline and expectation, but given the urgency of the situation, and the inability to do anything without him spending time on this (including working on by myself or find someone to replace him), what can I do?

Background

My non-profit project has an IT volunteer that take care for my website. He also sponsor anything relating to it (hosting, domain, etc). (The domain is registered by my account, he just sponsors it)

One largest problem right now is that due to some reasons I cannot access to the hosting. I have done my best to make sure that I'm correct on my side, and in theory it should be easy. So regardless the problem is on his side on my side, he needs to look deeper at this.¹

The website was once hacked and he had to work on that. Obviously he had to spend extra time to recover it than his commitment. It recovered, but I guessed the leftover was still there.

Now it's having a mysterious bug that reoccurs the next day after he debugs it. For now he can only temporary fix it. The ultimate solution hasn't yet found.² This has been a week and I need it to come back to do other stuffs.

Technical errors for those who want to look deeper:
1. Not supported authentication methods available (server sent: publickey). The SSH key is generated by me.
2. How to resolve "InnoDB: Unable to lock ./ibdata1, error: 11"

Question

I understand that he has work and family to take care of, and I know that having to do things that aren't his top priority will create cognitive load. I also be aware of the Hofstadter's law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law".

I have expressed that if he helps me to access my hosting he wouldn't need to spend much time, but he doesn't reply. I don't think there is any passive aggressive here. It was him to actively asking to volunteer this job and sponsored the cost, because the project aligns with what he wants. There is nothing he profits from this, and I would like to apply the assume good faith principle here. Plus that when urgent things happen he still response.

How should I have a talk with him to see if he feel too much responsibility and want an exit way? I'm thinking about asking him

  • If I can share some of his burden (exchange tasks) (I prefer this), or
  • If he also work for payment, so I can pay him
  • Ask publicly on Facebook if anyone can help. He can see the post and it is not guarantee that I'll have another volunteer. Plus he still has to give the new technician the access.

I wonder if this would damage the volunteering relationship? He's valuable, my budget is tight, and I do need someone to take care of technical problems.

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    He volunteers his time to help you. This is a gift. If he's unavailable or unresponsive then find someone else and pay them to fix your website. – joeqwerty May 16 '20 at 13:54
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    Offer to pay him for his time. – joeqwerty May 16 '20 at 14:20
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    @Flater ❝how... offering someone money for their (so far unpaid) work would somehow imply that you're not happy with the work they do❞ Because it has been 2 weeks and the website is still inaccessible. Plus that according to this answer, the budget I can afford to pay him would be an insult. ❝"I still want his unpaid effort in the future too"❞ I must confess that yes, that's basically correct. This is not an attempt to exploit him. I don't want to convey a wrong message. If you find this frown upon please guide me – Ooker May 19 '20 at 13:50
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    @Ooker "Because it has been 2 weeks and the website is still inaccessible." You cannot expect unpaid volunteers to work to an arbitrary deadline. If their lives take precedence during that period, you don't get to override that. "I must confess that yes, that's basically correct. This is not an attempt to exploit him." If you accept freely given charity, sponsorships and volunteer efforts, that's not exploiting. If you start laying professional expectations and guaranteed availability/presence while also wishing to not offer any quid pro quo, that is literal exploitation. – Flater May 19 '20 at 13:57
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    @Ooker The usual advice is put a summary up top and provide context if needed further down. Skimming your question you could boil this down to "I'm reliant on a volunteer to contribute both time and money to my non-profit but [lately he's been / sometimes he is] unresponsive - how can I start a discussion with him on our mutual expectations". Tech details and a full context aren't really relevant. Things like him contributing financially are. You're also putting a lot of focus on what sounds like one incident without specifying if it's a pattern. – Lilienthal May 20 '20 at 21:37
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  • If I can share some of his burden (exchange tasks) (I prefer this), or
  • If he also work for payment, so I can pay him

Suggest option one, not two.

If he's normally your sponsor, do not offer to pay him.

We are in Vietnam (different cities). I can afford around $20. His day job is full-stack web dev.

At that rate, you'd just insult him.

Also, this issue could take an additional 10 to 20 hours of his time (perhaps even more). Time, that he doesn't really have according to you, so time that is really precious to him.

His ego is already invested in sponsoring your activities. And by offering him $1 or $2 an hour, you'd just be devaluing all the work he has already donated to you.

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  • Many thanks. If possible, can you tell how I should approach him? Would this be suffice? "Hey John. I understand that you are busy. If I can share for your task please tell. I'm happy to help?" – Ooker May 17 '20 at 15:43
  • We use WordPress. I have modified the source code several times using PHP and understood its structure. I may ask publicly if anyone can help, but again I worry if that would insult him. – Ooker May 18 '20 at 4:49
  • yes, I have researched everything in my ability. In the hacking instance, I subscribed to such a security mailing list. But in this instance, it's the database error, and I need to access the code if I want to do anything. Beside that, the website is just a blank error page – Ooker May 18 '20 at 17:51
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    @Ooker, If the web site is completely down, then you have to do something. It doesn't matter if you hurt his feelings. Personally, I would give him a call. These things are easier done on the phone. And just ask him "I know you're busy, but would you mind if I tried to fix it myself, or if I recruited someone who could help us fix it." – Stephan Branczyk May 18 '20 at 19:22
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    @Ooker, And if you want a task for yourself, make a backup of the database, get yourself a cheap account on a different web host, set up a vanilla version of Wordpress using the data you backed up, and see if you can get that working. If you can go to him with a temporary solution that's already working, that might help a lot. If he likes your solution, you guys can just point the domain name to it. Once that's done, you can worry about customizing it later. But right now, you just need the site back up and running even if it's far from perfect. – Stephan Branczyk May 20 '20 at 4:02
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+50

I've been on both sides of this - I've been both the skilled but unpaid volunteer, and the leader who is trying to get the volunteer effort to move in the direction he needs.

Coming from the volunteer perspective - there certainly are some tasks that "pay" more than others when the pay is in valuable experience and the joy of accomplishing something vs. actual dollars. The pay, in that sense, does not translate directly to cash, and in some ways, it's more powerful. That said, what work "pays off" better can be highly individualistic. One developer may find writing great test suites more rewarding, while another may find that making the site virtually incident free is the big payoff.

Coming at it from the non-expert leader side - it can be tough to see why a volunteer is responsive in one case, and then a total blocker in another case. The complexity of why something is easy and/or rewarding enough to work on, while another thing gets only stop-gap attention - can be really difficult to figure out. Sometimes the volunteer can't even tell you himself, as it's an internal set of values and payoffs that most folks can't articulate.

Here's what I recommend:

1 - Ask the volunteer to get some time with you to talk in person, online. Go for the highest fidelity communication you can manage - ie, video vs. phone, or real time vs. time delayed. It shouldn't be a massive imposition to either of you -- video is pretty widely available and also quite good for this sort of thing.

2 - Have a list of your priorities, strictly rated. If you got only 1 thing done, it should be #1. And then clarify why they are such a big deal for you. Ideally, send out a short list with a short set of reasons ahed of time.

3 - Ask him to bring his wishlist, too, done the same way.

Spend the meeting reconciling the lists. If he can't commit to getting your #1 priority done in a time frame that you need... that gives you a good point at which to say "would it make sense for me to hire or recruit someone else to do this?" - it doesn't really matter whether it's because his schedule is full, he doesn't know how, or he just doesn't want to - unless he's covinced you that your #1 goal is a terrible idea, and there's a better way to get the same business result, with a different strategy - you have a good opportunity to say "thank you for all your help, but my business requirements need this to happen, and they need it to happen FAST".

That may be a deal breaker for your volunteer - some people do this work as volunteers because they like having total control, and they don't want to share. Alternately - he may just have serious concerns about what another person would do to the quality of his work -- that's a good thing to discuss - there's all sorts of ways you could bring in more help, and yet give him some control about the overall project.

Summary: A pivotal thing here is is that neither of you really knows why the other person is behaving as they are. From your writing, it seems that you do not know why the volunteer isn't able to get the work you need done - it could be he's super busy with other work, it could be he can't figure out how to do what you want, it could be that he disagrees with your direction, but hasn't said anything... And I think he may not know why your need is so important - you may have written it, but he may not have interpreted it the way you think he would.

The goal of this being an in person or nearly-in-person conversation is so that you can both share information rapidly - with no time lag - and also so that you can reach other's non-verbal cues. It's much easier to see someone's opinion or actual level of commitment in a conversation where you can see and here them.

The meeting can be successful when you either know when he'll be able to finish the work and agreed, or when you've agreed he can't in the time you need it done, and you've agreed to a way of pursuing other options...

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  • Thank you. How do you ask your volunteer to have a meeting with you, given that he is busy? Perhaps "Hi John. I know that you are super busy these days, but would that be comfortable for you to have a quick video chat? It should be quick, and this is a great opportunity to be clear of our expectations and limitations, as well as knowing each other well." Would this be perceived as creating more tasks or reducing tasks? – Ooker May 21 '20 at 17:47
  • It really should always be OK to ask for a meeting. Checking in with each other has to be part of the work, and a well run sync-up should help efficiency. My thought is don't ask "are you comfortable?" since it's needed by you whether or not he's comfortable. Ask "when within X time boundary would be a good time for a Y length meeting?" And then give highlights of the agenda - you have Z goals, and need his input on both his priorities, and what the time commitments or alternate ways of getting your needs met would be. Also part of the agenda - when is the next check in. – bethlakshmi Aug 6 '20 at 18:56
  • Good ways to be courteous - be open to his time limitations, even if the meeting time he'd like is annoying for you - see if you can make it work. And have a good, clear agenda. And at the end, ask if it was a good use of his time and be willing to adjust. – bethlakshmi Aug 6 '20 at 18:57
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For anybody who is working for you (payed or unpayed) if you are unsure about their ability to invest the time required to meet the goals a conversation is in order. I would put it in terms of "Is this manageable? Is there any support that the organization can offer you to make this manageable?" and do your best to follow through on the requests.

With a volunteer I would suggest non-monetary payment when they go above and beyond. For small stuff giving them promotional items with the organization logo is nice, for bigger stuff I would suggest additional public recognition in some format.

As someone who's done a lot of volunteering, I appreciate the promo items in that years later I still get my good feelings for supporting the cause every time I use the item. Also as someone who has gone above and beyond for an organization I have really appreciated public recognition of the time I invested. For me it was a special line in the program for the day as well as a dedicated call out in the speech from the event director.

People volunteer because it feels good to give our time to causes we support. Taking money away from those causes is counterproductive so focus on enhancing those good feelings for your key volunteers.

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  • I see. But in this instance when he knows that I need him to do something, then would this be fine to publicly announce his contribution? I worry that it would be perceived as subtly forcing him to work – Ooker May 20 '20 at 17:09
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    Short term action is asking if he needs any support to get this done in the timeframe you are hoping. The recognition would come after the fact in an appropriate venue. Sending out a newsletter saying "Thanks to Bob for solving this issue" when he isn't sure he has time to do so is in poor taste. At the next event for the non-profit (fund raiser, awareness event, etc) or regular published communication offering him specific recognition would be fine. – Myles May 20 '20 at 19:36
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Summary of the answers

Stephan Branczyk suggests to go for the route of asking if he needs any help, and that offering to pay him will insult him because the money wouldn't be enough.

bethlakshmi suggests to have a video call with the volunteer, so that both sides' expectations and limitations are clear to the other.

Myles suggests that volunteer prefers public recognition rather than money.

My solution

I send him this message:

Hi John, I really understand that you are having a tough time, but it has been 2 weeks and I really need to have it recover. If you can't manage time to work on it, how about I recreate it on a different web host? Or if you want to work on it is there any job that you would like to be done and I can help you? I really appreciate your time.

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    Why the downvotes? – guest May 25 '20 at 8:36
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If you do the site and you're the owner, then invest a few dollars and host it yourself. Relying on people who don't get paid leaves you with very little cushion or leverage.

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    I agree and upvoted. The real problem is that the OP doesn't have access to where his content is hosted. All of the discussion about managing who handles which tasks is pointless since a volunteer can do whatever they want....and it sounds like the volunteer doesn't really want to be available. – David Cram May 18 '20 at 5:34

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