Volunteers - Radiant

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Volunteers

Posted by Andrew VanderPloeg

So this is a bit of a tough post to write for a few reasons. First, it's going to say some tough stuff about churches and ministries and second, it's going to challenge an approach to design, development and maintenance of ministry websites that seems right and natural, but frequently ends in disaster.

That being the case, I want to preface this post by saying two things:

  1. What I'm about to share comes from experience. It comes from years of seeing churches and ministries try to approach the design, development and maintenance of their site in a risky way.
     
  2. What I'm about to share comes solely from a heart of helping the readers of this blog avoid a common pitfall. If the result of this is that a few more people sign up for AdvancedMinistry or call us for a custom website, obviously, that's great. But I want it to be clear that this post, is about sharing experience that can keep you all from a lot of struggles with your site. I don't want someone perceiving this as a sales tactic and as a result shrugging it off as useless information.

Having laid that groundwork, the issue I want to tackle is of churches and ministries that opt to use volunteers from within their church to design, develop and maintain their website.

In short, my recommendation is this: tread carefully.

Don't get me wrong, I know that it's a tempting option. A well-intentioned and willing volunteer with experience in this area can seem like a gift from heaven when you weigh that against the cost of working with an outside firm.

However, what I've come to see in my years of managing accounts for both ministry-based and for-profit organizations as it pertains to the idea of ministries using volunteers is that in the long-run, it really isn't worth the up-front savings. Here's why things often break down:

  1. Churches and ministries are difficult to manage. I can imagine that some of you out there are nodding your heads in acknowledgement while others likely have no idea why I would say that. So let me qualify.

    As I compare my experience of managing corporate clients to churches and ministries, it's clear that in general, most ministries don't understand what it takes organizationally to get a website off the ground. This is part of the reason that we spend so much time on this blog talking about good decision-making.

    Ministries often fall into the trap of either getting too many people involved in decisions, or having one person in leadership with a strong personality that drives the whole process. There's often no happy medium. Managing this dynamic takes experience, time, effort and patience and is something that most volunteers heading into a website project have no idea to look for. As a result, they soon find themselves in an unhappy place; wishing they never helped. This lack of drive leads to a reduced commitment to the project.
     
  2. Churches and ministries are notoriously bad at paying their bills. I've blogged here about this in the past, but in my years of managing both ministries and for-profit clients, it has become clear that corporate clients pay their bills most often on time, without complaint. This is not the case with ministries. Of course, given the nature of how ministries run and are financed, there needs to be some allowance for this to occur.

    However, most often, it's a situation of lack of organization or good money management that leads to these missed payments. This adds an incredible amount of stress to a relationship with someone from within your ministry if you owe them money for expenditures that they have taken on personally but aren't reimbursed for. Again, this only and often leads to a sour relationship which doesn't incentivize anyone to complete the project.
     
  3. Churches and ministries often come across like the volunteer owes them something because the work of the ministry is so important and commissioned by God. This can lead to abuse of that person's time and lack of appreciation for their efforts. Whether it's intentional or not, this attitude stresses the relationship and will almost always cause things to end badly.

On the flip side:

  1. Volunteers most often don't bring the breadth of experience to the table that is required to see the project succeed. Just because someone is good at design or programming doesn't make them qualified to manage a web project. Different people are gifted in different areas, this is why we have distinct management, design and development teams who work together to generate solutions but each department focusses on a specific set of tasks that they are experienced and gifted at.
     
  2. A volunteer can get tired, frustrated, busy or even lazy! This is a real challenge because there really is no drive to complete the project. With an established company, a ministry would establish a legally binding contract for the work to be completed in a reasonable amount of time. This most often doesn't exist in a volunteer situation as the work is typically undertaken in good faith and it often leads to a stress in the relationship.
     
  3. Volunteers can move on. So, your volunteer has taken the site through the planning and design phase and just started into their real forte, development, when they get a job offer from another area of the country and move away. This happens all the time and the ministry is left high-and-dry missing the one person in the process that knew all the parts and plans for the site.

So there's a breakdown of just a few of the reasons why using a volunteer from within your church or ministry can be a bad call. Of course, that statement is a blanket statement and I'm sure that there are some of you out there who could outline a great volunteer experience. However, those positive experiences are clearly the exception to the rule, not the standard.

In the worst-case scenarios, we've seen whole websites get to near completion and have to be abandoned and the process reinitiated from scratch...translating to significant unexpected expenditures.

We've also seen website domains expire and websites go down because the volunteer registered the domain in their own name and will no longer respond to emails, even though the domain has expired.

For all these reasons, think seriously the next time you look to a volunteer in your church or ministry to help you along with your web project (or any communications effort for that matter). It's not to say that every experience with a professional firm will go smoothly either. But this world of communications, with it's subjectivity in design and challenges presented by development, has enough pitfalls built in, using an expert to navigate through it with you can help to mitigate against those pitfalls.