There are many good reasons to utilize volunteers at special events. Having people willing to lend a hand can help decrease a staffing budget and provide better service for participants. Peer-to-peer interactions on a planning committee or at a registration desk, allow association members to get to know each other better, which can help them forge lasting bonds.
“We just feel that engagement in the organization is really important, and one of the fastest ways to do that is to volunteer,” says Kathleen Larmett, executive director of the National Council of University Research Administrators. “When you’re engaged in your organization, you’re going to stay around.” Volunteering to do a simple task at a meeting may put folks on the first rung of a leadership ladder that will help them climb to more substantial positions.
That isn’t to say that there are no downfalls to having volunteers at a conference or meeting, however. A poorly managed corps of volunteers can become a headache for planners, who already have plenty of personalities, and tasks to manage at a gathering. By utilizing some best practices and common-sense approaches to volunteer management, associations are much more likely to realize the benefits of volunteers without encountering as many of the pitfalls.
The level at which associations utilize volunteers for events varies widely. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of the American Camp Association (ACA),” says Rich Garbinsky, the organization’s volunteer engagement committee chairman. “While we have a world-class, knowledgeable, dedicated and passionate staff, the partnership they have with ACA volunteers is key to our success.” Volunteers are utilized for all aspects of the association’s annual conference and other events. Jobs include serving on the planning committees, working with operations, procuring speakers, giving presentations and managing hospitality.
The National Council of University Research Administrators works with about 350 volunteers for its annual meeting. Typical attendance is between 1,700 and 2,000, so a good percentage of the attendees there are either serving on a program committee, speaking at a workshop, working at the registration desk, helping to direct people or doing another job. “We also have a large cadre of volunteers who call members who are attending for the first time,” Larmett says. “About two weeks before the meeting, they’re given a list and they may call two or three new people. We have about 100 members who do that.” At the event, seasoned members speak at a reception designed to give first-time attendees some tips on how to get the most out of the event.
Volunteer involvement doesn’t have to be so extensive, however. The Grant Professionals Association (GPA) typically recruits about 75 volunteers for its four-day annual conference, which draws between 800 and 1,000 people. “The primary way we use volunteers is at our registration booth,” says GPA events manager Barb Boggs. They check in attendees, hand out goody bags and speaker gifts, answer questions and otherwise assist the staff. Boggs typically has two volunteers at the desk at any given time.
“Our volunteers help with tasks such as handing out registration materials, delivering handouts to workshops, helping direct crowds and moving equipment throughout the day,” says Courtney Zirkle, CMP, event coordinator for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.
Good communication is critical to creating a volunteer experience that is beneficial for everyone involved. “We want to make sure that when somebody volunteers for us, the charge they’re given is very clear and understandable,” Larmett says. “If there’s a deadline involved, we want to make sure that’s very clear too and that they understand and accept that. We create a concise description of what the volunteer position is and an agreed-upon deadline. It’s important to do that upfront so they know what they’re doing and what’s expected of them.”
Proper training and support for volunteers will help the association and volunteers avoid problems at the event. “When we can, we use service descriptions for volunteer positions that help set those expectations,” Garbinsky says. “We try to make sure that all volunteers are prepared for their role and that both volunteer and staff support is available. Proper training and overviews are a must. Regular check-ins and communication are utilized with all volunteers, along with constant volunteer feedback to make sure that their needs and the needs of the association are being met.”
Boggs sends each volunteer a reminder email with the date and time of their shift before the conference. “Along with that email, we send them the responsibilities to give them an idea of what’s expected of them before they show up,” she says. “We’ve also done volunteer conference calls or video calls to go over those responsibilities and go over any questions. We segment those calls by the area where they’re volunteering so we can focus on exactly what they’ll do be doing in their position. On-site, we always keep a list of the expectations for them at the desk, and a staff person walks through and trains each person as they come to the position to make sure they have any questions answered.”
Zirkle uses a similar system. “Before the event, I send them training videos for specific technical tasks such as A/V and a thorough volunteer guide,” she says. “Make yourself easily available if they have any questions, whether it be in person or online. For example, I use WhatsApp to connect with our international volunteers who may be unable to call/text me on-site.” Volunteers get an email with a reminder about each shift one day before they’re supposed to be working.
Having realistic expectations for volunteers will help create a more positive experience for everyone. Zirkle tries to match volunteers with tasks that are well-suited for their skill set. “It is key that you understand what their expectations, limitations and abilities are,” she says. “It is also important to be nice, flexible and patient with the volunteers.”
One of Boggs’ top volunteer management tips is to make sure everyone stays busy when they’re on their shift. “Definitely be prepared with a list of things that you want them to do,” she says. “The worst thing I’ve seen with volunteers is they show up and they’re just there, and they don’t know what to do. They can have a great conversation with one of our staff members, but you can see that they’re also thinking, ‘I gave up an hour of my day and I’m not doing anything.’”
Boggs often puts people to work restocking or reorganizing the registration area when there’s a lull in activity. And if she really has nothing for them to do, she’s honest with them and gives them the option of abandoning their shift. Most of the time they choose to stay, but at least they know they have the option of leaving. “We’ve found that if they’re bored, they don’t enjoy their time as much and they’re less likely to volunteer again in the future,” she says.
It can be tempting to pass all kinds of tasks on to people who want to give their assistance for free. But it’s vital to make sure any task assigned to volunteers is one that makes sense, both for the organization and the person. “We make sure we don’t put volunteers in any position of heavy responsibility and authority. Staff takes that on,” Larmett says.
“I think it’s important to always keep in mind that they are volunteers, and not paid staff,” Zirkle says. “They are choosing to spend their time helping us, and it is important to treat them with respect and gratitude. Identify which tasks need to be completed by staff, and which volunteers can handle. Some things are more integral to the success of the event and require a trained staff member.”
Zirkle adds, “I once had volunteers help translate workshop slides into different languages. For multiple reasons, it didn’t work out and ended up causing more stress for everyone involved. It was a great lesson. It very quickly taught me that despite their willingness, not all jobs are appropriate for volunteers.”
The most common ways to recruit volunteers are through word-of-mouth and referrals. “Volunteer recruitment, for the most part, comes from current volunteers,” Garbinsky says. “We surely utilize self-nominations, but most of our success stories come from current volunteers and staff identifying and recruiting new volunteers. The American Camp Association promotes a culture of giving back to the association. Many volunteers choose to do something because they have been served by others.”
“We send out calls electronically, but our board of directors and our standing committee chairs and our staff, ride the range all the time and act like talent scouts,” Larmett says.
When they need someone to fill a position, someone typically has a person in mind. Many annual meeting presenters respond to a call for proposals, but if there’s someone the association really wants to have speak, they will share their information with the program committee and have someone reach out to them directly.
Planners have varying opinions about the importance of retaining volunteers. “Volunteer retention is incredibly important to me,” Zirkle says. “Returning volunteers tend to have a better understanding of the event, are more comfortable with the staff and are typically willing to help with any task. Returning volunteers are also able to help train and mentor new volunteers, which saves me a lot of time on-site. Another added benefit to returning volunteers is the ability to tailor certain assignments to their strengths and being able to avoid their weaknesses. I try to retain volunteers year to year by building individual relationships with each person, staying in touch between conferences and inviting them to volunteer at future events.”
Garbinsky has a different view. “There needs to be a balance between keeping veteran volunteers and recruiting and utilizing new volunteers. Of course, we value the same volunteers coming back and being part of American Camp Association year in and year out. But our volunteers also realize that new blood, different perspectives and increased energy are needed for success. People keep coming back because they want to. They feel valued, they feel like their work is important and they feel — and know — that their volunteer work makes a difference.”
One goal of the National Council of University Research Administrators is to increase diversity and inclusion within the organization. Among other things, that means recruiting a lot of new people to give conference workshops. To make new presenters feel more comfortable, the association now offers a ‘first-time speakers’ program that pairs new folks with a seasoned mentor.
Larmett has had to turn away some seasoned volunteers in favor of new people in the past few years. “The hardest thing is when your volunteers are fabulous — you hate to lose them,” she says. “But we’re going through those growing pains because we need to bring new blood in. We’re in a time of transition. The baby boomers — half of them are gone — so we’re trying to bring in the next generation.” She was concerned that there would be a backlash when the association changed its policies and had to limit some people’s involvement. But so far, members have been very understanding.
Showing volunteers appreciation for their hard work is important. “Volunteers need to feel and be valued whether they are part of the group planning, the entire event or the group assembling packets,” Garbinsky says. “Making someone feel like they belong and are part of the community is crucial.”
“At our annual meeting, the program committee members each receive a framed program cover of the meeting they’ve just done,” Larmett says. “We do that for our winter meetings as well. We hold a separate reception at the annual meeting for our program committee members and speakers. And each of our program committee members are reminded after the meeting to go back to their speakers and make sure they understand how thankful we are that they came to the meeting and shared information with the attendees in the room.”
“I try to do small things throughout the entire event to show our appreciation for the volunteers,” Zirkle says. “We give out extra drink tickets at our evening events — these are especially appreciated by the graduate students — and allow them first dibs for conference swag. They get a personal ‘Thank you’ after their last shift. I’ve found that doing small things throughout the event helps keep volunteer morale at a high.”
“Every April, for National Volunteer Week, we send a handwritten note signed by each staff member,” Boggs says. The association has about 400 volunteers in total, so the staff will pass around cards for signatures during meetings for the months leading up to that time. “They also get a small gift to say ‘We appreciate you and what you do for us.’ At the conference, we always give them chocolate or candy just as a little ‘Thank you’ for being there. We always follow up again after the conference and send out another thank you to them for taking their time to help us out.”
Those types of personal contacts are often the most important acknowledgement for volunteers, Garbinsky says. “Quite frankly, a simple ‘Thank you’ or a personal note goes a long way.” | AC&F |