Engaging Event Volunteers - How Hard Is It Really?

24 May 2021 | News

Engaging Event Volunteers - How Hard Is It Really?

In the 10 years that I have been with Volunteer Marlborough, I have been involved with the recruitment of a huge number of volunteers for various events. This is always a process and sometimes it has us tearing our hair out with frustration until the day of the event, when we can see it all come together beautifully.

I know. I can hear your comments now. "Ohhh free staff!", "Happy days!", and "What could possibly go wrong?". Well. So many things, if it isn't done right!

Volunteers give freely of their time and they want to be part of these events, but they aren't free! There are many costs involved in engaging volunteers for our programmes and events. There is an investment of time, planning, resources, and even some financial costs involved. So why do we keep involving volunteers? Simple - when done right, a volunteer programme connects your organisation with your local community, and your volunteers become the face of your event, helping to make attendees feel safe, informed, and inspired.

So how do we engage those volunteers, and keep them coming back for other events? Well, it might sound incredibly simple but small things go a long way! Here's a few ideas to make sure that your volunteers truly become a part of your event management team:

Assign a Volunteer Manager It's hard enough to be an event organiser, with a hundred things to do and worrying about the event, without having to also manage volunteers. So delegate that task to someone else - someone personable, with good communication skills, and empathy. Better yet, ask the group of event volunteers if any of them have volunteer management experience and would like to take it on!

Plan your EXACT volunteer requirements All too often we get requests for hundreds of volunteers when a group of 20 or 30 may be all that was actually needed...and vice versa! Take the time to plan for exactly what will be needed, including back-ups, and their specific roles. Role descriptions with expected outcomes will help you (or your volunteer manager) to choose the best volunteers for the role and help them achieve their best.

Plan ahead! We get a lot - like, a LOT - of requests for event volunteers at incredibly short notice. Ideally, a minimum of a month ahead of the event is the bare minimum timeline for even the 'simplest' of events. The bigger the event, the more lead-in time you should allow. This gives our team at the volunteer centre enough time for back and forth, editing of roles, checking up on referral status, and more. It also means you aren't scrambling to find your volunteer team at the last minute, thus freeing up valuable time for other important things.

Provide volunteer training It is crucial that all your event volunteers be fully briefed about the event, their role, what downtime there might be, and any possible changes that might be made to their during the course of the day. Make it mandatory that volunteers attend this briefing and any other training if they want to be part of your event, but also be prepared to hold a few of these sessions as not everyone will be able to attend the same one.

Talk to your volunteers Whatever you do, don't just send your volunteers off to the far corners of your event site and expect them to be enthusiastic about monitoring a crowd control barrier all day. Rotate your volunteers around the event, where possible, to keep them interested and enthusiastic. These volunteers are not just manpower, they are also your eyes and ears at the event so ensuring that communication channels are open, honest, and well known will allow them to highlight any problems that might be occurring at the time, rather than a debrief two hours later when nothing can be done about it.

Empower your volunteers Don't forget that people who put their hand up to volunteer for anything, including events, often come with a range of experience, knowledge, and skills. This might even include event management! Work to those strengths, instead of just palming off the less desirable jobs that your paid staff don't want to do. Volunteers will always perform to their best when they are encouraged to use their initiative and have been shown that they are trusted.

Say thank you! At the end of the day, make sure you personally check in with each volunteer to thank them for their contribution to the day, ask them for their immediate thoughts and feedback, and whether there were any issues that arose during the day. It is always a nice idea to give volunteers a small something to show your appreciation for the time they have contributed. Remember - treat your volunteers well and they'll come back to help with future events. They'll also tell other people about the experiences they've had with your organisation and event so make sure that the PR you're getting is of the positive variety!

Listen to your volunteers' experiences After the event, make sure you fully debrief your volunteer team. This may take the form of some sessions similar to pre-event briefings, or perhaps you can create an online survey to ask them for their feedback. This feedback will not only help you plan future events, but also give you some invaluable insight into why some will or won't volunteer in the future.