Motivating Volunteer Student Editors

How do you motivate student editors to produce great work when you can’t afford to pay them?

I am Senior Editor of the SAIS Review of International Affairs, an academic journal at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Our organization has two levels of hierarchy:

  • The paid Editorial Board -- Editor-in-Chief, Senior Editor, Managing Editor and Web Editor --  solicits content, recruits and trains staff, manages the copy-editing process, and markets the publication.
  • The staff of thirty volunteer Assistant Editors are responsible for the grueling details: several months of fact-checking, corresponding with authors, correcting style and grammar, and formatting citations for 5,000-word academic essays.

When I assumed my leadership position last summer, I asked myself: Why should students join our organization? Given the countless responsibilities and opportunities competing for a graduate student’s attention -- homework, job interviews, work-study and rival student organizations -- it was my responsibility to earn the participation of our staff. Here are a few guidelines that worked for me:

1. Make them feel valued.

Ask for their feedback. Respond to suggestions. Compliment them for good work. Say thank you. And don’t forget about perks: Meetings catered by Chipotle say “You’re valued!” more than a bag of stale chips and salsa.

2. Provide a variety of incentives.

Some students want a line for their resume and publicity for their work. Others hope to exercise creativity and gain leadership skills. Many will be inspired by the potential to earn a salary in a leadership position the next year. Clearly state how your organization will help students achieve their unique objectives.

3. Demonstrate a dedication to excellence and efficiency.

Lead by example: If you don’t take pride in your work, neither will your staff. Constantly seek to improve efficiency and quality. Do not blindly accept tradition: If your organization's historic approach is no longer relevant, develop a new strategy.

4. Assign yourself the most demanding tasks.

All-nighter? Unhappy author? Particularly complicated facts to check? You should take on these tasks yourself. A volunteer editor is sacrificing his or her limited time, and should be rewarded with meaningful, not tedious, work.

When I was an Assistant Editor, I often received midnight emails with unrealistic demands, and received critiques rather than compliments for my contributions. I knew that I would do things differently. By following these guidelines, I doubled staff retention compared to the previous year, and identified several talented future leaders for our organization. But most importantly, I am proud of the positive environment and opportunities for learning that I have provided for my staff.