Volunteers can make or break your event. For non-profit organizations, they are critical to keeping labor costs low, amplifying the productivity of paid staff, accomplishing event objectives, and representing the brand. A well-managed volunteer program helps these unpaid do-gooders perform at the highest level and come back year after year.
How Event Planners Can Get the Most From Their Volunteers
Put someone in charge. A volunteer workforce is a little needier than full-time, paid employees. They require more training, guidance, and information than their more experienced counterparts. A manager gives them what they need to be effective and works closely with the departments and individuals who require volunteers.
Write a mission statement. Many volunteers want to feel that they’re part of something bigger. A mission statement from the organization written explicitly for volunteers gives them a reason to give back.
Build a volunteer database. It’s a good idea to keep a record of individuals who have volunteered in the past, particularly those with certifications or competencies that are in demand (food handler permits, bartender licenses, ability to lift 50 pounds, etc.). Bringing in people who are experienced saves time. Plus, they are usually good sources for other volunteers.
Consider volunteer management technology. Several new mobile apps have emerged that help organizations manage volunteers. InitLive, for example, handles signup, scheduling, recruitment, shift assignments and email/SMS text communication. The data from the app can help planners improve their volunteer operation.
Provide appropriate training. Every volunteer, even those with simple responsibilities, needs training both in person and in writing (so they can refer back to the process when the instructor isn’t around). On an event with many volunteers, team captains can provide detailed instructions and be available to answer questions that arise with every new shift of helpers.
Provide a communication system. Not every event has the budget for two-way radios, but most people carry personal mobile phones. There are many different apps that can deliver one-to-one and group messages via text (Slack and WhatsApp, for example). They are helpful for answering quick questions from volunteers and as a way to communicate emergencies.
Give volunteers gifts. Sometimes the experience of volunteering is reward enough. Other times, volunteers donate their time precisely because they get a t-shirt (which can also serve as a uniform) or tickets to the event. If the event budget can’t sustain these small tokens of appreciation, planners can look to sponsors for help.
Separate the wheat from the chaff. Not every volunteer is good at their job. Some try very hard but just don’t have people skills or follow directions well. The challenge for planners is to relieve them of their duties without causing any hard feelings. Having a process for that will benefit the rest of the volunteer operation and the event.
Hold appreciation events. Even if the event for which volunteers are needed is once per year, organizations should find a way to show their appreciation (post-show champagne and cupcake party anyone?). These little touches show appreciation and help boost volunteer retention.
Sometimes with a volunteer workforce, organizations get what they pay for. One way around that is to structure a volunteer program for maximum efficiency and volunteer satisfaction. To learn how the Orange Bowl Committee works to create economic impact in South Florida (including events) with a volunteer workforce, check out Building and Managing a Volunteer Army.