Last Updated on July 10, 2022
Volunteers are the core of most any event. Very few trade shows, conferences, and fundraisers can properly function without a dedicated, devoted event team running the show behind the scenes.
In other words, if you don’t have the proper framework in place – if you aren’t doing as much as you could be to attract people to your events team and retain them – then your event’s inevitably going to suffer.
The good news here is that, like many other things in the event industry, volunteer retention’s only as difficult as you make it. With the right knowledge, you can put together an ironclad group of volunteers who’ll be more than happy to work with you. Today, I’m going to provide you with that knowledge – I’m going to give you a rundown of a few best practices for keeping your volunteers happy, hard-working, and most importantly, safe.
Watch, Listen, And Learn
I’ve said in the past that an event management professional’s job isn’t just about logistics. It’s just as much about people management – about knowing the people working under you and how best to appeal to them. That’s doubly true where your volunteers are concerned. You need to ensure that you aren’t getting so caught up in your event that you neglect the people who are helping you make it happen.
Now, you probably already know that you need to delegate. You need to promote people to lead your volunteer teams. It’s also important, of course, that you’ve some sort of reporting system in place, so that those team leads can keep you apprised of how things are running.
A great event manager goes beyond that reporting system, however. In addition to keeping in touch with your team leaders, you should regularly check in with your volunteers, and pay attention to any questions and comments they might have. If they raise a valid concern over some aspect of your event, take action to address it as soon as possible.
Not only will your event be better for it, they’ll remember that you listened to them and be far likelier to return and help you out in the future.
It’s also imperative that you always be on the lookout for signs that someone might be getting burnt out by their volunteer schedule. If someone on one of your teams seems exhausted, inattentive, or irritable, that’s not necessarily a sign that they’re irresponsible – they might just be overworked. Be flexible with when you expect your volunteers to work, and don’t be afraid to send someone home (or just off for a break) if they look like they’re getting too worn out.
In other words, you should treat your volunteers not simply as resources, but as valued employees and colleagues – because in this context, that’s exactly what they are.
Treat Them Well – And Show Them They’re Appreciated
As an addendum to the above, volunteering with your organization shouldn’t be a painful, difficult slog. Volunteers aren’t slaves, after all; they should never be treated as such.
Most properly-run events provide their volunteers with a certain level of comfort. They’ve a well-stocked break room with easy access to food and drink; a place where they can relax between shifts. They’ve somewhere safe and secure to store their valuables while they’re working. They’ve the necessary tools to do their job – whether it’s two-way radios, maps of the venue, or even a smartphone app.
There’s something that’s even more important than providing for your volunteers, however – and that’s making sure they feel appreciated. Never underestimate how much power a simple and genuine thank you can hold. In addition to regularly thanking people for their work during the event, you should get into the habit of following up with your volunteer teams after everything’s said and done, sending out notices thanking them for their participation.
Don’t Forget About Legality
My next piece of advice comes from Shawna McKinley of the Event Manager Blog
“Event organizers,” she writes, “should be very careful their volunteer program conforms to the law. This includes ensuring it meets fair labor requirements. For example, the United States Department of Labor requires that 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.”
What will happen, for example, if an accident occurs and a volunteer ends up with an injury? What if they have to be hospitalized with a broken limb or something even worse? Admittedly, it’s relatively unlikely something so severe will happen, but you need to ensure your bases are covered just the same – both for your sake and for the sake of your volunteers.
Train Them Well
Take it from me – there are few things more frustrating than a job you don’t know how to do, especially when everyone around you is expecting that you know the ropes. It’s your duty as an event organizer to make sure your employees are all properly versed in their duties. You should institute a regularly-reviewed training program, which includes the following:
- Duties: What’s their job? What will they be expected to do when they volunteer? Make this as clear as possible – everyone should be 100% certain what their responsibilities are. Be sure to include work hours as well.
- Code of Conduct: How are they expected to behave on the floor? What level of professionalism do you demand of your team?
- Rights: What’s the legal limit of what they’re expected to do? When can they exercise their rights as a volunteer and say no? What are your obligations to your event team?
- Accountability: In addition to their duties, what components or aspects of the event are they accountable for? What happens if something is damaged, lost, or stolen?
- Safety Protocols: What’s standard procedure for when something goes horribly wrong? What should a volunteer do in the event that someone becomes violent, is gravely injured, or vandalizes the event property?
- Contact Information: Who should they get in touch with in the event of a scheduling conflict? What about if there’s a problem with another volunteer?
- Important Locations: Where’s the break room? Storage? Emergency exits?
- Layout: What’s the layout of the event? How is everything arranged?*
“Where can I find…?” is one of the most frequent questions I see asked of volunteers at pretty much any event. Make sure your volunteers are familiar with the show floor. More importantly, make sure they’re capable of providing accurate directions to anyone who asks.
Provide Awesome Incentives
Unless you’re running some sort of charity event, most people aren’t going to volunteer simply because they want to help out. Most of these people have lives, commitments, and jobs outside of your event, after all. They’re going to desire something in return for their efforts; some sort of incentive that makes their time at your event worthwhile.
This will vary depending on what type of event you’re running, but I think the best example of a well-designed incentives package is the volunteer benefits at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. Quoted directly from the volunteer page, here’s what people who help out at the expo get access to:
- Weekend pass to the show
- An exclusive Crew t-shirt
- Bottled water
- Food voucher(s) to redeem while volunteering
- Access to the Crew Lair
- Invitation to our Crew team building events
- Invitation to the Crew thank you party
- An exclusive discount card to use at retailers around Calgary
There are also a few unwritten/unspoken benefits, too. See, CCEE is one of the largest geek culture conventions in the world – meaning it attracts a ton of celebrities from all walks. People who volunteer at the expo often get to work in close proximity to many of these celebrities.
What I’m saying is that you should never underestimate the power that a popular influencer or celeb can have on volunteers. They can genuinely be one of the most powerful retention tools in your arsenal. Even if you’re not doing a great job of providing for your team, I guarantee there’ll be at least a few people who’d stay on simply on the off chance that they’ll get to talk to Wil Wheaton, Patrick Stewart, or Ian McKellan.
Anyway, to my knowledge the expo has never been under-staffed. As such, your own incentives packages should provide volunteers with at least as much as what I’ve laid out above. After all, the sweeter the offering, the likelier people are to want to sign up and help out.
Make Sure You Aren’t Making Them Do Jobs They Shouldn’t
There are some jobs that should be left to a team of experts or to paid staff. That’s inevitable. You should never use your volunteers to cut corners – ever.
“Not all jobs are well-suited to volunteers,” notes McKinley. “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. While volunteers can be a welcome enhancement to your event, make sure it has the budget to support essential, skilled staff. Don’t let volunteers become a crutch for maintaining a financially unstable event.”
What she means by this is that you shouldn’t hire volunteers to run security. They shouldn’t be expected to manage your A/V equipment, or to keep your IT infrastructure up and running. Those are all jobs that require a great deal of training – years, in some case.
So hire a security firm. Have a team of IT professionals on-staff, and hire people to manage your sound system and video gear. Trust me on this – the money you’ll save by putting volunteers into these spots isn’t even remotely worth the headache you’ll experience when things go south as a result.
Understand That You’re Going To Lose A Few Volunteers No Matter What You Do
No matter how well you provide for your volunteers, you’re going to attract at least a few flakes. There’s always going to be a few bad eggs who try to get all the benefits of volunteering without any of the work, just as you’re always going to have to deal with people who are just generally irresponsible. You need to make sure you’ve protocols in place for dealing with such individuals.
“To reduce risk, plan for attrition and bake in clear repercussions for no-shows,” says McKinley. “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.”
Very few events can properly run without a dedicated team of volunteers. They can be one of the most powerful and vital resources in any event organizer’s arsenal – or they could make a whole event come crashing down spectacularly. It’s all in how you manage them.
Now that you’ve read this piece, you more or less know everything you need to. Get out there, and build an events team you can be proud of. And make sure the people on that team are fully aware of that pride.
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