badges for volunteers in an event

Image courtesy to Rail Summit

Think back to your last event. What percentage of your team consisted of volunteers?

We’re willing to bet that percentage is pretty high.

Volunteers are a strong asset to any event; perhaps even your number one asset. Not because they’re free–although that’s nice–but because volunteers are passionate people. Think about it: how passionate do you have to be to give your time freely to an event? Pretty passionate!

Despite their passion, volunteers do still have other obligations. They probably have a full-time job, friends and family, hobbies, and maybe even other volunteer responsibilities. Because of this, you want to make sure that you get the most out of your volunteers’ time, and that your volunteers get the most out of their time while helping with your event.

To do this, you’ll want to put a strong volunteer program in place. If you have a plan and process for acclimating your volunteers, the experience will be much more enjoyable on both sides and you’ll attract even more volunteers for future events.

Creating a volunteer program or system might sound daunting. However, don’t let the words scare you, it’s really just about having your stuff in order before bringing volunteers on.

Your volunteer program will likely consist of the following four facets:

Planning your Volunteer Program Ahead of Time

Unless your volunteers are supermen and wonder women, they’ll probably want to join a team that has all its ducks in a row. This means they’ll want answers to the following:

  • What they’ll be doing
  • Who they report to
  • When to show up
  • And of course, what’s in it for them

Here are some steps to take before even bringing on your first volunteer:

  1. Identify what roles you’ll need to fill. This is the best place to start. Who will you need on your team and what tasks will each role be responsible for?
  2. Create a reporting system. Managing volunteers has been referred to as herding cats. However, if you’ve got a good structure in place, there’s little herding needed. Identify who your volunteers will be reporting to. It’s helpful to divide the volunteers up into teams by function, identify leaders, and have at least one full time employee (or a very dedicated, organized, and experienced volunteer) to which other volunteers can report to within their department. This isn’t so much as to ensure accountability, but to ease communication from the outside in, and vice versa. If you want to get super organized, you can even create an organizational chart.
  3. Uncover incentives. Why should people volunteer for your event? What will they be getting out of it? Perhaps your event is the most amazing event and they’ll become amazing by osmosis. Maybe. But just to cover your bases, you’ll want to clearly identify what volunteers stand to benefit from by helping you put on your event. Better yet, make a list! Will they get real world experience? Opportunities to advance their career? Strong connections? Impressive biceps from lifting tables and boxes?
  4. Share your plans with any internal stakeholders. You’ve got an idea for a killer volunteer program. Fantastic! But it won’t mean anything if someone inside your company vetoes it. Plus, if you bring internal stakeholders onboard, you can get their feedback for suggestions on how to make the program even stronger.

Recruiting the Right Volunteers

Now that you’ve got an impressively organized process and know what you need, you’re ready to bring volunteers into the mix. Remember, volunteering isn’t a “come one, come all” type of thing. You’ll want to recruit volunteers almost as carefully as you would recruit employees.

A good volunteer experience starts before they even begin. You’ll want to make sure they’re the right fit for the event. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ensure this when you don’t have enough people stepping up to volunteer.

First off, where can you even find volunteers? There are a couple different routes to choose from:

  • VolunteerMatch: This is a great option if you have a philanthropic cause behind your event.
  • Idealist: Again, another great one if your event has a philanthropic cause behind it.
  • Craigslist: Craigslist is a tried and true way to draw in many volunteers to your event.

Once you’ve piqued volunteers’ interest in your event, the path begins to break from the one taken when hiring employees. You probably don’t need to interview volunteers like you do employees, however, pre-qualifying them will ensure that they’re placed in a role that’s the best fit for all.

One of the quickest ways to pre-qualify volunteers is through a simple online survey asking them about their skills, experiences, goals, and, if necessary, the hours per week they can commit. Google Forms is a great (and free!) way to collect this information.

Onboarding and Training your Volunteers

Even the best volunteers can benefit from a strong onboarding and training process. According to Society for Human Resources, “Onboarding is the process by which new hires get adjusted to the social and performance aspects of their jobs.” Like with employees, how you officially introduce your volunteers to the event and your goals will pave the way for a successful relationship and experience.

There are some things you can do to not only onboard and train your volunteers but to wow them and create advocates:

  • The history of the event and/or organization
  • The goals of the event and how they relate to the volunteer’s role
  • The time commitment
  • Communication procedures

Creating a Communication Plan for your Volunteer Program

In a strong volunteer program, communication in your event never stops. Before you jump in, it’ll be helpful to put a plan in place as to how your team will communicate. This might include:

  • Strategizing interdepartmental communications. This is especially import if you have a large team. Consider the path through which communication should flow. Do you have any communication protocols for sharing information between departments of volunteers? It’s usually helpful to designate one person from each department to be the representative when communicating with other departments.
  • Holding meetings at regular intervals. This helps ensure that volunteers will have advanced warning in case they have conflicting work or personal commitments.
  • Sharing predictable communications. Perhaps there’s information you need to share each week or each month, leading up to your event. Create a plan for sharing this information over email, phone, Skype, or Google Hangout in a predictable timetable.
  • Making it a fun experience. When your volunteers enjoy themselves, your attendees enjoy themselves. The experience is contagious, so plan for that from the start.
  • Last but certainly not least, don’t forget to thank your volunteers. Refer to this Volunteer Appreciation Guide for more ideas!

Following the above steps tips will help you successfully attract and retain the right volunteers for your event. Have you implemented a volunteer program for your event? If so, would you add anything else to the above list?


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