Engaging event volunteers – sure it can’t be that hard … can it?
April 20, 2015
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Over the last number of years I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of the volunteer management team both working and volunteering at a number of large scale public events in Ireland, Northern Ireland and England. This is my day job … managing volunteers, I love it so much that I also volunteer to manage volunteers at events. Why do I give freely of my time you might ask? Well I’m passionate about volunteering, event volunteering in particular and as the national volunteer development agency and a support agency to volunteer agencies, for Volunteer Ireland it’s our bread and butter.

Volunteers give freely of their time and want be part of these events. Wow, free staff…. happy days, ‘what could possibility go wrong?’ Well, just about everything if you don’t do it right…

Firstly volunteers aren’t free, there are cost involved to engaging volunteers – it takes an investment of time, planning, resources – and there are of course some financial cost too. So why involve volunteers? It’s simple – volunteers are the face of your event or festival. A volunteer programme, when done right, connects with your local community and makes your attendees feel safe and informed.

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It may sound simple but small things go a long way, here just some of the things you can do to make sure that your volunteers are part of your event team:

• Take the time to plan your exact volunteer requirements and their roles. All too often I’ve heard requests for volunteers in the hundreds when a group of 30 or 40 volunteers may be all that was actually needed. A role description with required outcomes will help you select the best volunteers for the role and help them achieve their potential.

• Provide volunteer training to fully brief your volunteers about the event, their role, possible downtime and changes to their role during the day. Make it compulsory that volunteers attend if they want to be part of your event.

• Empower your volunteers. Remember that volunteers may have experience and knowledge of a broad range of skills, including event management that can add to those of your own staff team. Work to their strengths, don’t just give them the crappy jobs that your staff don’t want to do. Volunteers perform their best when you encourage them to use their own initiative, trust them, and why would you do that? … well you recruited them based on a role description that you wrote.

• Designate a Volunteer Manager. As an event organizer, you’ve got a hundred things to do and worry about during the event, so delegate the task of managing your volunteers to someone who is personable, a good communicator and empathetic, better still ask someone if they’d be interested in the role.

• Provide your volunteers with adequate refreshments. Contrary to belief among some events, volunteers are humans and therefore require food, water and shelter. Depending on the length of your event they’ll need snacks, a hot meal and bottled water amongst other things.

• Talk to your volunteers – don’t just dispatch them to the furthest reaches of your event site and expect them to enthusiastic minding a crowd control barrier all day long when they don’t engage anyone until 20 minutes before they leave, rotate your volunteers around location to keep them invigorated. They are your eyes and ears at the event, so make sure you have good communication channels that allow two-way communication so they to highlight to you any problems that may be occurring on the ground.

• Say thank you. At the end of the day make sure you personally thank each volunteer for their contribution, check in with them for their immediate feedback and ask them about any issues that arose during the day. It’s a nice touch to give volunteers a small momento to show your appreciation of their time. Remember treat them well and they’ll come to back your event and talk about the positive experience they’ve had with you as an event organiser – free PR for you!

• Listen to volunteers’ experience. After the event email your volunteers and ask them for their feedback via an online surveying tool. Make sure you again thank them for their contribution and act on their feedback, where you don’t or can’t act on their feedback let them know why.

About the author:

VIlogosmallerStuart Garland (@StuartGarland) works as Training & Programmes Manager of Volunteer Ireland, an organisation that provides a broad range of volunteer management supports to events and festivals to help them better manage their volunteers. From staff and volunteer training design and delivery through volunteer management software delivery to full on site volunteer programme management. For more information visit www.volunteer.ie and www.eventvolunteers.ie

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