Often overlooked and poorly managed, volunteers represent a second workforce in the United States – and your silent competition.
Given the right motivation and platform to achieve, the collective capabilities of a network of volunteers can make or break a business. In the 1990’s, tens of thousands of programmers spent their evenings and weekends creating enterprise-grade software that they gave away for free. This was Linux, and it has severely curtailed large companies such as Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Oracle, as well as countless smaller companies.
How can volunteers be harnessed?
In order to tap into the power of volunteers there needs to be four pieces in a program:
- A clear social benefit.
- Rewarding work – the work should have immediate positive feedback, so that “the reward is the work itself”
- A vision to rally around
- Ability to connect and socialize with other volunteers
At Delta Airlines, thousands of employees volunteer to make the travel experience better. The “Peach Corps” program in Atlanta has off-duty employees directing travelers during high-volume days (such as Thanksgiving); the “Clean Day” 2006 program had 300 employees cleaning planes in 4-hour shifts.
Rob Maruster (currently SVP at JetBlue) was Delta’s VP of Airport Customer Service at Atlanta responsible for the program: “Many of our Peach Corps members are Delta employees who do not regularly interact with customers, but…share a common goal – to make customers want to fly Delta again and again” (SKY Magazine, July 2005).
Both of Delta’s volunteer programs focus on the three points:
- a an immediate social benefit (clean planes, fewer lost passengers);
- rewarding work as a chance to try something different from one’s day-to-day job;
- a vision of improving the experience of weary travelers;
- a chance to meet and work informally with a small and diverse cohort within a large organization
In addition, the program played up to some employees’ fanatical loyalty to Delta. One employee, for example, referred to Rob Maruster as “traitorous” for leaving Delta for JetBlue.
The Linux movement is a well-known and thoroughly studied phenomenon. My research at the Harvard Business School suggested that there were two distinct sides to the Linux movement: the programming aspect, where programmers were given freedom, responsibility and independence to build software that they were interested in; and the organizational aspect, where members interact with others, foster a community spirit and make collective decisions.
The programming aspect provided the social benefit and rewarding work, while the organizational aspect provided the vision and ability to connect with others.