Successfully Engaging Volunteers in Complex Projects - Code for Hawaii: Hawaii Zoning Atlas

Did you know that there are laws regulating what can be built where in your city, town, or borough? If not, you’re not alone. Few people other than city employees, architects, and real estate developers know about these rules and their impact on the shape of our communities. Once every 10–25 years, policymakers, city planners, and community stakeholders work together to create a “comprehensive plan” for the city to grow or change. Planners all land within city limits into different “zones” with different rules that encourage developers to follow the plan. Each “zone” is legally designated for a specific purpose (like residential, industrial, or commercial use) and intensity (apartments vs. single-family homes, large malls vs. small standalone stores, etc.). Uses and intensities that are inconsistent with the plan require special permission from city officials, and, in some cases, public meetings with city residents.

One problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to predict societal changes years in advance. Where the comprehensive plan conflicts with the needs of the community, zoning regulations may become an obstacle instead of a guide. For example, the City and County of Honolulu’s Land Use Ordinance, last fully revised in 1986, dedicated a substantial proportion of downtown land to hotels and resorts. Many today argue that over-tourism is degrading the environment, pricing residents out of their homes, and contributing to climate change—but the law continues to enforce the priorities of 35 years ago. In April, scholars at the University of Hawaii found that the burden of these regulations in Hawaii are by far the highest in the country.

What we are trying to do

The purpose of the Hawaii Zoning Atlas is to build awareness of the connection between housing affordability and zoning regulations among the general public and to serve as a rallying point for housing advocates and others concerned about these economic issues in the state.

The Hawaii Zoning Atlas is modeled after the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, which began by providing original research and data analysis of land use regulations in the state. This research served as the foundation for a coalition of civic, nonprofit, and advocacy organizations that:

  • Educated the public on land use and zoning issues
  • Developed policy solutions
  • And successfully advocated for the adoption of those solutions in their 2021 state legislative session.

How do we build a good volunteer process?

The success of this project is rooted in our data collection process. The process involves completing a simplified data table for each jurisdiction in the state with zoning information found throughout pieces of legislative text. For example, if I’m working in the Countyof Maui, and searching for information on a zoning district (e.g., R-2 Residential), I will be searching for this information in the Maui Zoning Ordinance, Maui Zoning Map, and other official documents. It’s a lot of work; at this moment, it takes about three meetings for someone to feel comfortable entering data on their own.

Trey (project founder) and I agreed that we could improve on our onboarding process so volunteers would understand zoning and land use laws/policies; become invested in the project and its success; and be able to meaningfully contribute.


Our volunteer deck defines zoning, provides background of the project’s goals and timelines, and includes an example of the data collection process. Knowing that everyone learns differently, we walk through the example and then have volunteers try it for themselves. We also provide information in other forms, such as video. We ask all volunteers to complete the project roster, which helps us stay connected with volunteers. We also walk volunteers through our Kanban board on Github, and ask them to assign themselves to an issue. This helps in project management, as well as gives the volunteer clear, tangible work to begin with!


On a monthly basis, we highlight volunteers who have joined three or more data-collection meetings. We are also building engagement with local land use and zoning news in our Slack channel, as well as continuing to provide our team with weekly updates on the progress of our data collection!

TL;DR: Having a holistic approach to the volunteer onboarding process has helped our project set a realistic timeline for completing our data collection, have a snapshot of the missing skills we needed to recruit for, and built comradeship between our team members! Think about the volunteer experience holistically and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How are you engaging volunteers inside your working time and outside? How are you showing appreciation for their time?
  • What rituals do you have in place for your project?
  • What is your onboarding process from start to finish? How do you adapt onboarding for different experience levels and needs?
  • Do you notice when volunteers “disappear,” especially after their first meeting? Are you iteratively improving on your turnover rate?