Guide to happy and effective volunteering

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There are a lot of people wanting to work on Dreamwidth who are new to volunteering with a project like this. This is a decidedly good thing. The more people we have, the better. What it does mean, though, is that some people aren't familiar with the mindset of volunteering for an Open Source project, and expect things to be different than they are. This can mean frustrations all around. This little guide is just a few things to keep in mind, which should help make you both happier and more effective as a volunteer.

Remember that we aren't building a site just for one specific use

Lots of people get caught up in the way they use or want to use the site, and think that everyone else uses it or should use it in the same way. This isn't the case, though -- everyone uses the site differently, and what might be incredibly helpful to one person might completely break the site for someone else. Remember, as you suggest things, that your particular use case is just one of many, and Dreamwidth's owners -- the ones who set the development priorities -- have to balance everyone's wants and needs. When you're proposing suggestions, always ask yourself: does this benefit people outside my particular sub-group? If it doesn't, effort will probably go elsewhere first.

Share your ideas, but don't grow attached to them

One of the great strengths of a project like Dreamwidth is that there are so many people sharing their ideas. This can quickly turn to a disadvantage, though, if people aren't willing to be flexible and adaptable. If you have an idea about something that could be added, or how things could be done, or anything at all really, then please share it. Once you've shared your idea, though, let it speak for itself. If it's a fantastic idea, then other people will pick it up and run with it, probably modifying it along the way. If people don't like your idea, please don't be offended. It probably just means that there are other more important things to do, or that there are problems you didn't think of, or something.

Also, remember not to sweat the small stuff. If you find yourself getting worked up about something, ask yourself if it's something that really matters, or if you're just stressing over the colour of the bikeshed when other people are busy putting up the walls.

Don't say "someone should do this". Say "I'll do this!"

There are way way more things that we want to do than we have the people for. If you have an idea for something, or see a hole that needs plugging, just jump in and do it. This can be intimidating at first, but really, it's the only way. If you want to check first that it's something that's wanted, or that nobody else is working on it, then ask. People will generally be remarkably willing to help you out if you say "hey, I want to do this".

If the something is something that you can't do, either because you don't have the time or because you don't have the skills, then that's fine. Remember, though, that if you can't do it then probably a lot of other people can't do it either, and the ones who can are probably busy with other projects.

Dive right in!

One of the great things about working on a project like Dreamwidth is that you get to learn new things. Most of us are doing things that are slightly beyond our comfort zone. There are a whole lot of tasks that need doing, and sometimes we just don't have anyone who knows exactly how to do it already, so one of us has to learn as we go along. Or sometimes we do have people who have the right experience, but they're too busy with another project.

If you're looking to learn something new, this is a great place to do it. There are plenty of people who are willing to share their knowledge with people who are willing to learn. If you just sit and wait for the perfect project that exactly matches your skillset to just fall into your lap, you're likely to be waiting a very, very long time. If you're willing to push yourself, try new things and learn, you'll generally find it much easier finding something you can do.

(A corollary to this point, though: sometimes there are tasks that need doing well and need doing fast, and in those case, we need people who know what they're doing already. Rest assured there'll be plenty of other cases where you're welcome to dive in and learn as you go along.)

Be willing to self-educate.

Because so many people are trying new things, there's a shortage of people who are able to provide exact, step-by-step tutorials to teach you how to do something you want to do. While people are willing to give you good starting points, and are always willing to answer specific questions, we don't (yet) have the resources for one-on-one mentorship. If you take on a task that's outside your comfort zone, be willing to research on your own and teach yourself as you go.

Ask not what your site can do for you; ask what you can do for your site

You can get a hell of a lot out of volunteering. You can learn skills and get good experience. You can meet all sorts of awesome people. There's a real kick to be got out of seeing something you helped build come together. Sometimes, there's even perks to be had, like early access to things. If you're thinking of volunteering for any of these reasons, though, you're in the wrong place. It seems an obvious thing to say, but if you aren't volunteering out of a love of the site and a desire to make it better, then you're only going to get frustrated.

There will be times when your ideas get rejected. There will be times when a project leader asks someone else to do something that you really wanted to do. There will be times when people are too busy to answer your questions. I know it's frustrating at times, but remember that everyone involved is doing what they think is best for the project as a whole. While we always try to do what's best for each other, when there's a conflict, the project comes first.

We're all volunteers here!

We're a volunteer run project. Aside from Denise and Mark (the owners) and our very few staff, we're all doing this in our spare time, out of love for and passion about the project. Some of us have full time jobs. Some of us are in full-time education. Some of us have medical conditions that mean we can't manage full-time jobs or education. None of us are able to give our full and undivided attention to Dreamwidth.

The big advantage to this is that we're set up with the expectations that people won't be able to offer 40 hour weeks for us. There are plenty of opportunities for people who can only offer a bit of time here and a bit of time there. If all you can offer is one hour a week, then we'll take it gladly as one hour per week of work we wouldn't otherwise be getting done.

The flipside to this is that everyone else is a volunteer too. If you ever find yourself getting frustrated with someone, take a moment to remind yourself that they're here for exactly the same reason as you are: they want to make Dreamwidth awesome.