Kristine Michelsen-Correa is the Head of Community at Duolingo. Today, she took the stage to answer the question: How do you empower volunteers to contribute to a global mission?

Duolingo is the largest language-learning platform in the world. It uses adaptive learning to create a personalized experience for each learner. Kristine says: “We believe that everyone should have access to education of the highest quality for free.”

At first, the team attempted to create all their own content. This was incredibly time-consuming and resource-intensive, and people kept reaching out again and again wanting to help. Today, there are over 60 language courses offered to the community, and 85 million people are learning a language for free on Duolingo.

A year and a half ago, Duolingo launched an Incubator program. Volunteers would apply by stating why they were passionate about the mission, their experience on Duolingo, and what they could bring to the process. That has allowed Duolingo to quickly create more than 40 new language courses through their volunteers to give access to laungage learning for millions more people every year.

How can you create a volunteer program like the Duolingo Incubator?

1. You must be mission-driven. Organizations that are great examples of this are OpenStreetMap, Mozilla, TED and Wikipedia.

2. Can your community help? Duolingo’s mission to make language learning accessible to everyone was way bigger than the people on the team. Is your project community driven bottom-up and not top-down? Are volunteers coming to you or will you have to pay people?

The 4 Steps to Creating a Volunteer Program

Step 1: Define goals of program, creating new ways for people to contribute.

Why are you doing this? Who are the volunteer leaders? What are the community guidelines?

Step 2: Start Small: be selective, empower volunteers, build right tools as you grow. 

Start small in order to move fast. Duolingo started by launching select languages and didn’t concern itself with automation. Build the right tools as you grow, and these need to be prioritized.  We can imagine many tools we would love, but we need to pick the most important ones.

Step 3: Track Progress, inviting people to join community, defining the culture early on.

Courses need to meet metrics in order to progress to the next step. Courses are compared against other courses, against the average, to allow volunteers to gauge where they are. Once the course goes to “beta”, it is live, and learners provide lots of feedback. For the course to be released on all platforms, user reports need to drop below a certain number. This is a really exciting phase, because learners become part of the process! This is also where communities explode and the personalities of the course-creators and course-users shine.

Step 4: Learn and iterate.

Lots of qualitative feedback comes in for Duolingo. How to engage the community in a transparent way? This is necessary for communication.

Questions you need to ask within your organization before launching a program and setting goals:

Kristine outlines some amazing vetting questions for prospective volunteers.

  1. Why are you doing this?
  2. How much are you willing to invest?
  3. What’s your timeline?
  4. How do you evaluate the program?
  5. Who are your volunteer leaders?
  6. What are the community guidelines/norms?

Identifying and Incentivizing Volunteers

What are the traits of a great volunteer? 

Kristine identified five key traits of a great volunteer.

  1. Believes in mission
  2. Enthusiastic
  3. Flexible
  4. Committed
  5. Communicative

All of Duolingo’s volunteers are communicative and they’re passionate. At the Incubator Summit for all their volunteer members, volunteers from around the world met one another in person. They seemed like long-time friends, but despite having chatted every night for months and years, they had never met face to face before.

So… what can we accomplish together?

This is the question that Kristine goes back to again and again to guide her actions as the Head of Community. She ended with this note: “Together we can achieve more than when we think and act alone.”

Monica Raffaelli

Monica is a graduate student at NYU School of Engineering.