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SIGCHI Report: Developing our Volunteer Community

A stock image showing feeds and hands of sevreral people gathered together in a circle

The SIGCHI Volunteer Development Committee–Monica Pereira, Heloisa Candello, Ceara Byrne, George Raptis, Stanislava Gardasevic and Mark Perry

SIGCHI is an organisation that is led and supported by volunteers. SIGCHI survives on volunteering, and volunteer roles range widely — from becoming a student volunteer or member of an organizing committee for a conference, to volunteering as a reviewer or associate chair for a program committee, to volunteering on the SIGCHI Executive Committee or one of its subcommittees. In doing this, it pulls on a diverse and international membership base. Knowing more about this base will allow us as an organisation to better support volunteers in these roles, to understand the problems and difficulties they face, and to look forward to more effective policies, practical guidance, and technical solutions where these connect with our volunteers. As the SIGCHI Volunteer Development Committee, we’ve therefore carried out a detailed investigation into this to produce a report on two detailed studies of volunteering for SIGCHI, conducted in 2019–2020.

In this study, we report on our findings about volunteering for SIGCHI — the draw to volunteering, the factors that put people off it, and most importantly, what we might do to change this. It is impossible to disentangle from this discussion the perceptions and attitudes of our volunteers to SIGCHI as a whole, and we discuss these too. As we continue to grow as a community, understanding these challenges and opportunities is critical to the wellbeing of SIGCHI, and we recommend that you read this post if you are a volunteer (especially if you are one responsible for creating volunteering roles) or if you might consider being one in the future.

Knowing more about this base will allow us as an organisation to better support volunteers in these roles, to understand the problems and difficulties they face, and to look forward to more effective policies, practical guidance, and technical solutions where these connect with our volunteers.

For most of us, it will come as no surprise to hear that volunteering has come under huge pressure across SIGCHI venues and activities, across conferences, local SIGs, and a wide variety of other committee work. We do a lot of activities under the SIGCHI banner, but this also means that there is a lot of work to do! The human and systems process for working with volunteers are increasingly straining to support SIGCHIs needs because of this and our emerging needs for ensuring equity in filling volunteer roles. The most obvious pressures to this lie in scaling, and SIGCHI’s flagship conferences such as CHI, CSCW, and UIST continue to increase their published output while the number of reviewers grows at a slower rate. Yet the pressures on volunteering are also being felt elsewhere within SIGCHI across a broad set of activities. To enable peer-review stability at the current rate of growth and maintain the volume of other volunteer-led SIGCHI activities, this will require growing the pool of volunteers and/or making more effective use of the volunteer base. The SIGCHI EC has therefore decided to look closely at why and how volunteering is done with the aim of supporting it more effectively.

When setting out to do this, it is worth asking the question of why people volunteer. Thomas, Pritchard and Briggs (2019)¹ provide some indications about this. They posit four implicit psychological contracts or ‘promises’ that are offered by organisations to volunteers: 1) social (social network and community building); 2) opportunity (improved skills, new employment opportunities, personal development), 3) value (more meaningful use of free time aligned with religious, political, social or ideological beliefs) and 4) organisational (organisational citizenship, job satisfaction, reward and recognition). All of these are likely to impact on the support (policies, guidance, systems) that SIGCHI can offer. With these questions in mind, our study of volunteering for SIGCHI venues and its other activities covers current stresses and problems identified by members and participants around volunteering processes as well as anticipated stresses and problems likely to arise in the future. In the longer term, we hope that this understanding will inform design technology solutions that support a range of volunteering more effectively.

The data presented below was collected from a survey conducted with 160 members of the SIGCHI community (primarily those involved in conference management and reviewing) and 18 semi-structured interviews with a number of senior members who have been involved in event organisation. The full report is available here. Please read a snapshot below. Your inputs/feedback are always welcome!

The first of these studies was a large-scale (n=160) survey of volunteers (2020) with both open and closed questions exploring volunteer demographics, motivations for volunteering, experience of SIGCHI volunteering to date, barriers and challenges faced, and suggestions for future improvement.

Although around a quarter of respondents were from the US, responses came from across the globe; they had experience of volunteering in a variety of roles, largely in conference management, unsurprisingly, with the largest involvement as paper reviewers. When asked about how supported they felt in their last roles, most were relatively happy, but worryingly, just under a quarter felt that they were not very supported, hinting at problems in our volunteer management processes. Recognition for the roles undertaken also suggested space for improvement with little formal recognition, with the largest single response (over a quarter) to this being that no recognition was received, followed closely by receiving an email of thanks, and then some form of unofficial recognition; we also find that formal recognition is likely to matter more to PhD students and early-stage career volunteers than more experienced volunteers. In terms of how we develop volunteering careers, an association analysis by gender shows that men are most likely to volunteer for SIGCHI again, showing an issue for inclusion.

As hearsay evidence would suggest, an association analysis also shows that the older a volunteer is, the fewer roles that they tend to take on. Although SIGCHI is an international organisation, English language skills seem to make a large difference in volunteer selection: volunteers with a preference for speaking English usually got the positions applied for, speakers preferring other languages were less frequently selected. Similarly, participants based in North America and Europe are more likely to have been given the last role that they applied for. While SIGCHI is a multidisciplinary field, experts with backgrounds in Computer Science and Design disciplines are more likely to volunteer again, suggesting that people from these disciplines may have a different experience of volunteering. While our respondents added a wide variety of positive free text comments, cluster analysis suggests problematic issues affecting their willingness to volunteer that included the following: lack of open position advertisements; the overwhelming nature of commitment (too much work/ exhausting/ stressful/ challenging); the lack of recognition and a feeling of being underappreciated; uncomfortable aspects of community (thankless and toxic community / closed club / coercive); problems of national politics (largely US internal politics and visa issues); worries about personal performance and not being well versed in SIGCHI culture; geographical issues and travel costs; and a lack of transparency or guidelines in SIGCHI-related processes.

The interview study complemented the survey in understanding the other side of volunteering: those who recruit and manage volunteers, loosely identified here as ‘volunteer managers’. This study (n=18) looked at the role of managing volunteers, exploring how senior members managed to attract a diverse and engaged team, and to identify problems and develop solutions to support volunteers. Participants had worked across a range of senior volunteer roles and SIGCHI venues, and were spread over diverse nationalities and locations, allowing us to assess a wide set of perspectives. A thematic analysis was used to explore volunteer selection criteria, recruitment challenges, and the tools used in managing, recruiting, and supporting volunteers.

The results cover a variety of areas ranging from why people volunteer, how they handle challenges, and potential future solutions. Motivations relating to volunteer management clearly demonstrate the career-building value of volunteering, primarily through networking and raising one’s personal profile, but also highlighting, more altruistic aspects of this. Cultural elements also come to bear on this, but in the community of SIGCHI, but also more broadly, through different national expectations of what ‘normal’ academic service might involve. The findings also point to how motivation for this can decrease, and of course, exploring how people’s motivations evolve over their careers and life circumstances.

We identify general recruitment criteria, showing what volunteer managers are primarily looking for in their recruitment (including aspects relating to diversity and inclusion). When discussing recruitment of volunteers, participants identified a number of skills recognised as important for the very different range of volunteering roles they recruited for, the challenges of recruiting volunteers (again, differing by roles), and the recruitment strategies that they deployed when searching for volunteers. As noted, ensuring diversity in volunteering activities was identified as a key issue, and participants discussed how they worked to recruit a diverse team, the diversity threats and challenges that they had encountered, and how they had overcome a variety of diversity challenges. Finally, the participants were encouraged to explore how they used existing technologies for supporting volunteers, and what sorts of digital solutions they would find useful in the future, covering conference management tools (PCS), and well as their use of other tools (such as email, spreadsheets, Slack), and in their use of social media in finding volunteers and building community. Findings suggest that volunteer managers feel poorly supported by tools to find and match roles to volunteers; that they struggle with the challenge of matching diversity with rigor and reliability under significant time constraints. Below, we present two very short snippets from the dataset that help illustrate why volunteers do volunteering and some of the factors that put them off.

Why SIGCHI Volunteers

Important for the individual and community: Participants felt that volunteering was important for greater academic recognition (“padding the CV”), networking, and growth at the individual level. Many also saw this as important work for the community and an opportunity to make the organization better:

And then I guess I continued volunteering after, well, a number of reasons. So, still there’s an element of wanting to develop myself as a HCI academic… I also want to know what else is going on in the top venues in the most popular venues and also what are the decisions that are made in terms of publication policy…. And I feel that it’s up to us who are not based in the US to step up and make it more diverse… because I think we need to have the community that’s more representative. So, it’s a mix really between my own personal ambition to be as up to date HCI, academic, as I possibly can be, and also to contribute to the community and make it more, a bit more interesting, a bit more diverse…

To represent: Being in a volunteering role that creates more volunteering roles is an additional draw because it allows individuals to make space for more diverse voices to be heard:

I think there are too few people from Latin America, from the global south, that participate in the international community. And I think I have sort of a duty to say, okay, we’re here, we do a good job every once in a while. So, you may count on us, you may invite more of us as well.

Favors for friends/relationships: Many said that they volunteered to support friends, and that their volunteering role was deeply tied to relationships with individuals and the community:

I’m in a fairly big HCI group and there are many people to choose from who are okay with doing me a favor every once in a while. And so, my general sense is that I do have some fallback options in terms of asking locally from somebody to help out; in particular in some of these last-minute reviews where people just haven’t responded or turned you down. I’m not a big fan of only having three or four reviewers who are local to my community. But I’m, I’m quite happy often to go with one who I also sort of can look in the eyes and know that this person will deliver. Right.

Reciprocity: Many expressed that our field would “grind to a halt” if not for volunteering, and stressed the important of giving back to the community. This was more clearly expressed in relation to reviewing papers; authors felt that they should give back for the reviewing time that their papers were taking up:

I have to say that I’m very much against making people review in the same cycle. I really dislike that, and if we go down that route, I might well be thinking about whether I want to participate in the community at all, cuz that does not fit within my community values. I don’t like the people who are suggesting that that’s appropriate. Because it doesn’t take things into account like family, it doesn’t take into account particular periods of job pressure. Like, there are a whole set of things. So while there are a few lazy people out there who put lots of papers in and don’t review them, the vast majority of people are not like that.

Learning about the community (culture/research trends): Many participants expressed that volunteering gave them an opportunity to learn about both — the SIGCHI community and current HCI research trends. Participants also found this process enjoyable and rewarding, especially on being connected with the “‘right’ people”. They remarked that reviewing and ACing had taught them “a lot about how publishing works” and was a useful experience for researchers.

Compensation: Although in general volunteering does not result in compensation, student volunteers do benefit from not having to cover their registration fee. These types of incentives, when available, were a great draw for providing support to conferences and to SIGCHI. In non-monetary forms of compensation, mentorship came up multiple times:

There are promising young scholars who need a chance to show what they can do, and frankly we need to hear from them. Um, and so part of what I think about is who’s ready and, and some of the people who are ready are still in graduate school and have more wisdom in their heads than I do. And I’ve been out of graduate school for kind of a while. And so, so I make those, um, entirely subjective calls in my own head about whose voices I want to hear and who’s ready to do it. And sometimes I mentor the reviewers as they review.

Factors that Put People Off Volunteering

Insufficient information about roles: Volunteering roles are not always easy to hear about, even for those well connected in the community. It may be hard to assess when one is meeting the bar for different roles, because guidelines and expectations for roles may not have been clearly expressed. This also meant that one was not recognized for a job well done, nor for a job not well done (with its own set of consequences):

For a good review, it has to be someone who’s really gone the extra mile. Like really come out with something really, really helpful to the authors. And really considered. People who will suggest how you can correct stuff for example. You know…rather than saying “The structure is terrible in this paper; I couldn’t follow it at all”. Someone who says like “I found trouble with the structure of this paper, here are some suggested ways you might be able to improve it, cuz the underlying research is good”, so people who are trying to build capacity. I think that’s my…that one of my criteria for what a good review is.

Recognition of labor (or not): Volunteering was perceived to often be dull and thankless. Roles frequently involved too much labor (also emotional labor) that was not always rewarding or recognized (e.g., due to different values held by participants’ institutions, or lack of recognition of reviews through Publons). Participants also said that feedback they had given had not been factored in, so they could not see that their contribution was valued:

I don’t mind picking up the slack, but I’m getting a bit annoyed about having to do everything on my own if I don’t know that you are struggling. They didn’t bother replying or anything. And so that person’s on my blacklist. And so I’m sure, I’m sure many of us have a list of people .. I have a list of people that I would never invite to work with me, and a list of people I would never invite to review, cuz they might be quite nice people, but their reviews are appalling quality. You know those two-line ones, those you know, so I think that’s something, but you have you build your own personal ones of those cuz you can’t be going around sharing people’s names.

Safety and Inclusivity: Participants voiced concern around toxic elements in the SIGCHI community, such as sexual harassment, bullying, nepotism, etc. Poor leadership and “bad role models” also led to unpleasant experiences. Participants recognized that practices favored the US/Global North (e.g., deadlines). There was also a lack of trust in how roles were assigned in the community (e.g., that of a student volunteer or associate chair), again due to insufficient information:

In the US, it’s built into the system that you have to volunteer because if you don’t get recommendation letters from your colleagues and then you don’t get a permanent position, and so on. And the whole culture in the US is about volunteering. Sweden does not have that. We trust the state to organize stuff for us.

Relationship to ACM: SIGCHI is ACM’s child organization and must abide by ACM policies. This was often not agreeable to participants who felt that ACM had a problematic stance on key issues (e.g. the open access letter signed by ACM in 2019).

In-Person and Virtual Participation: On the one hand, the need for physical travel was often hard to meet, say due to visa issues or familial commitments. On the other hand, in-person PC meetings had a draw that virtual PC meetings could not always emulate:

Because CHI itself is too massive for you to build your career, so actually people were really keen. They were really happy that I had asked them. They were really keen to do it. And so, it wasn’t really a case of motivating them. It was just a case of they had never really been able to do it before.

For Early Careers?: There was a common perception that volunteering roles were more important for those early in their career, and less so for those who had “been around a long time”. This also translated to sometimes becoming exploitative for the community:

I think you always want to have a balance between experienced and reliable people and bringing in new people and providing them with an opportunity and in a way so it’s not just for them but it’s an opportunity for the community as a whole to train people up, if you like, so that you give them that experience so that in a few years’ time they’ll be the experienced people who can take home these other roles.

What Can We Do Better?

With this data, what can SIGCHI (we, all of us as members) do to improve? The data leads us to suggest some opportunities, and although it is a start, there are many more possible solutions than we list here!

  • Learning from successes: volunteers like the student volunteer program because it seems to have scaffolds in place to support the volunteers. What other such successes exist? How can we emulate them?
  • Doing more virtually: Trying to do as much as possible virtually, but also prioritizing the gains for early careers where travel is concerned.
  • Making it okay to be “less awesome” and learning how volunteering works in non-American contexts: This American thing of like “Everyone is awesome. I am awesome” […] How do you overcome that? How do you frame it in a way that someone who doesn’t come from a culture where it is appropriate to say- “I am awesome”, um, is comfortable with volunteering?”
  • Making it okay to say no: So, I’ll tell you something I didn’t do, which I was asked to do-and that was to be the conference general co-chair for the CHI conference… To be honest, for me that felt awful a lot, like spending an entire year of your life in the spreadsheet. I thought that wasn’t very interesting for me at that point in time. Somehow, I’ve always found it nice or more, more like my kind of thing to, to be more on the academic side.”
  • BEING KIND and making work visible: I think that there are many people who could be asking — Why would I volunteer for more senior roles?… Seeing how much work it is. And in seeing how we as a community are often treating people in these roles. I often think who in their right mind would put themselves in the situation to be killed themselves, working as a volunteer and be beaten up for it…I think anyone who volunteers for a more senior visible role now deserves a medal… it’s too painful. And it’s not the work, so the work is a lot. … huge amount of work. It’s not the work, it’s the emotional labor.”

The value of this information to the SIGCHI community lies in understanding what we do, the stresses that our amazing and very diverse groups of volunteers face, across a wide spectrum of experience, roles and venues, and to think about what we can do better. We anticipate that this will be important to help volunteers understand the value of volunteering for their communities, the challenges that they will face, and the personal accomplishments that they will be able to take away from this; to the volunteers in senior roles working with and managing other volunteers, to understand the expectations, difficulties, concerns and hopes of their co-workers; and to future generations of the SIGCHI leadership in exploring how to support a fully diverse, inclusive volunteer base that maximises our volunteer potential with effective guidelines, policies, processes and technical support solutions. We hope that this will help build a stronger and better, more representative, and even more successful future for SIGCHI — onwards and upwards!

Click here to read the full report.

[1] Lisa Thomas, Gary Pritchard and Pam Briggs. 2019. Digital Design Considerations for Volunteer Recruitment: Making the Implicit Promises of Volunteering More Explicit. In Proceedings of C&T 2019, June 3–7, 2019, Vienna, Austria.

Volunteers move boxes off a truck with their masks on.