How to Prevent Event Volunteer Fail

From large-scale sporting events to community festivals and conferences, many events rely on volunteer support, making volunteer management core to the event planner skill set. So what goes into designing and managing a successful volunteer program? Following are a few steps we’ve come up with, and invite you to share your own tips and tricks.

prevent volunteer fail

Designing an Event Volunteer Program

You have chosen…wisely
Not all jobs are well-suited to volunteers. Core logistical functions, for example, are usually best handled by a professional, with the training, accountability and long-term involvement to get the job done right. Other positions, such as greeters, green teams, room monitors and information desk personnel could be volunteer-based.

Hey, volunteers have needs, too!
While volunteer positions are typically established to fill an event need, it’s important to understand volunteer aims as well. Are they looking for a free pass? Special access? Cool giveaways? Asking why volunteers are interested in your event can help you add the right perks to your program.

Don’t go breakin’ the law
Event organizers should be very careful their volunteer program conforms to the law. This includes ensuring it meets fair labour requirements. For example, the US Department of Labor requires internships meet certain conditions. Volunteer positions should not replace employment positions or positions subject to dispute. Other legal aspects to consider are the need for adequate insurance covering volunteers and criminal record checks.

I’m a volunteer, not your budget band-aid
While volunteers can be a welcome enhancement to your event, make sure your event has the budget to support essential, skilled staff. Don’t let volunteers become a crutch for maintaining a financially unsustainable event.

Recruiting Event Volunteers

Pick me! Pick me!
It’s important to state your volunteer selection criteria up-front to ensure you get the volunteers you need. This criteria can include practical requirements, like language or equipment proficiency. Selection rules are particularly important for positions you anticipate will be popular. Make sure your criteria are reasonable, and do not unfairly discriminate.

Quid pro quo, yo
Most volunteers are participating in your event because they’d like something in return: access, merchandise, experience, or training, for example. Clearly state what benefits they will receive upfront, to ensure no one is surprised or disappointed.

Dive into volunteer pools
If your event has an ongoing need for volunteers, consider partnering with a community group. This can work well if an honorarium is able provided in return for service by clubs, schools or fundraising groups. Look for groups whose mission aligns with your volunteer opportunity. For example, local recycling coalitions may be a source for event green team candidates.

Match-maker, match-maker, make me a match
Make sure your job matches skills, interests and availability to the best extent possible. Be prepared for individuals who may want to participate that have special needs, or physical limitations. Just as with an employment position, it’s important to be inclusive, and avoid discrimination.

Managing Volunteers

You want me to do what?!
Just because a volunteer is not paid does not mean they don’t need a job description. Clearly inform volunteers about their role, including who they report to, hours of work and tasks. Also be clear about anything you may not want them to do. This is particularly important for any volunteers who may be handling private or sensitive information.

You have the right to…
In addition to a job description, it’s important for volunteers to have a code of conduct, and bill of rights. Common items to include in a volunteer code of conduct include the expectation to arrive on time, demonstrate a positive attitude, respect co-workers, ask for help, be safe, report risks and injuries, and to have fun. And don’t forget volunteers have rights too, so organizers should spell their obligations out as well. This might include providing a fair, safe, healthy work environment free from harassment.

The best laid plans
There is always a risk volunteers may not show up, or follow through on their responsibilities. To reduce risk, plan for attrition and bake in clear repercussions for no-shows. This may include withholding any benefits, or in extreme scenarios, charging volunteers who skip shifts for benefits received. Also ensure there is a management plan to deal with difficult volunteers, who may need assistance to effectively perform, or be transitioned off the volunteer team.

Training day
Job descriptions, codes of conduct, bills of rights, and accountability programs should be reviewed during an onsite training. This orientation should also provide background on the event, and demonstrate any tasks they’ll be doing. This is also a good time to review and provide any special equipment that might be needed, including t-shirts, badges or safety equipment.

Please locate your nearest emergency exit
Event organizers are obligated to provide a fair, safe and healthy work environment for volunteers. In addition, risk planning, hazard identification and emergency response must include consideration of volunteers and be shared with volunteers.

A million times: thank you!
Happy volunteers return, and volunteer for others. So remember: you can never say thank you enough! For more ideas visit: 101 Ways to Recognise Volunteers.

Don’t let the door hit them on the way out
Volunteer responsibilities do not end at the close of the event. Effective volunteer programs include steps for the “after-event” experience: providing evaluations and references and seeking feedback to improve the volunteer experience.

In Conclusion

Volunteers can be a rich resource for event organizers, but do need to be thoughtfully managed. What wins and challenges have you experienced while managing volunteers at your event?

About The Author
Shawna McKinley
Shawna McKinley is a sustainability specialist who believes in the power of events to make the world a better place. She helps eventprofs take practical, smart steps through zero waste and carbon conscious choices that generate social good, business value, and happy event participants. Read more on her blog, Eventcellany.

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