Volunteer programs for association meetings can certainly be “win-win” situations. The association saves the money needed to pay additional support staff onsite, while the volunteers get various rewards for their time. In order to maximize the win for the organization, volunteers must be well-trained and placed in the right roles at the convention, whether they are part of the association’s professional membership, students in the field or local individuals sourced through the CVB, for example. In order to maximize the win for the volunteers, they must have the opportunity to do work that they are comfortable with and that fits their schedule. In addition, they should receive some kind of “compensation,” at the very least appreciation (perhaps a thank-you gift) from the association. But many associations opt for a more tangible reward in order to incentivize potential volunteers.
At the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) International Convention, for instance, volunteers receive one day of free registration for each day of service, granting them access to sessions, the exhibit hall and receptions. The American Historical Association goes a step further, providing its student volunteers free registration to the meeting if they work eight hours, as well as an hourly wage. While the monetary compensation may stretch the definition of “volunteer,” it does optimize students’ participation and cooperation with requests, according to Debbie Doyle, coordinator, committees and meetings. In addition to the earnings, students also have a vantage point on the conference work of a professional historian, especially when they assist speakers. “I think it’s good for them to see that senior faculty are just as panicked when they give a presentation as anyone else,” says Doyle.
Indeed, there also can be career value to volunteering, an aspect that should be conveyed to prospective new volunteers. “We try to promote to them what the opportunity provides,” says Bill Gibbs, conference manager with the Institute of Industrial Engineers. “It shows their willingness to contribute to the industry, and they’re meeting people that some day may be their boss. A lot of the Fortune 500 companies are represented at the conference, with hiring managers in attendance. So that first impression (as a volunteer) may be what gets them the job down the road.”
The IIE Annual Conference typically has an attendance of about 1,700 with roughly 10 percent of the attendance figure being student volunteers from different industrial engineering programs. They receive a reduced registration rate in addition to the career opportunities and a bit of prestige in representing their school. “Interestingly enough, it’s been a little competition between the different schools (in terms of) the number of volunteers they can provide; typically when they’re working they’ll wear shirts from their schools,” he adds. “It’s sort of an ongoing process where we’ll have, for example, 10 students from XYZ university one year and we may have 20 the next year once they realize what they can get out of the conference.”
“We try to promote to them what the opportunity provides. It shows their willingness to contribute to the industry, and they’re meeting people that some day may be their boss.” — Bill Gibbs
Many of the volunteers at the National Speakers Association’s (NSA) annual meeting, Influence, are “aspirational speakers,” those who are not professional speakers but rather gaining exposure to the field and gauging their own ability/interest. Volunteering allows them to do that. “We really want them to understand what it means to be a professional speaker from a craft and business perspective,” says Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, director of learning experiences for the NSA. “Many times they serve as our host procession so they can get up close and personal.”
Apart from promoting the tangible and intangible value to volunteering, it’s important to have well-defined roles and duties for the participants. These vary depending on the association, but they can be grouped into the following categories:
“Intellectual” volunteering: In some associations, members volunteer to review paper submissions for the conference sessions, which is a good way for those who cannot attend onsite to lend assistance. “They’re involved in that whole backend process where they don’t have to go to the event if they’re unavailable, but they still volunteered their time,” says Barbara S. Spain, events program manager with SPE (Society of Plastics Engineers). Intellectual volunteering also can be done onsite, where SPE members chair sessions, establish moderators and work with Spain to “determine how large an audience is going to be for a particular session so that I can get them placed in large enough rooms,” she explains. That judgment requires knowing the “draw” that a given speaker or topic will have. “If we’re doing a session on new technology, such as 3-D printing in the plastics industry, we know our audience is going to be 100–200 in the room,” she says by way of example.
Members also can offer counsel on the overall design of the convention. “We look to our professional speaker volunteers to help make the meeting what it should be for the people who are coming,” says Martin-Bilbrey. “They help us target the biggest trends and industry highlights that we should be putting out there, because they are going to everybody else’s events throughout the year, so it really helps us to pick and choose the most fun and cool items. Last year we had a volunteer devote a considerable amount of his own money in order to do a hologram experience on the main stage. Another year we had a Cirque du Soleil performer who flew in especially (for us) from Canada to share her talent and make our opening reception pop. Those events are all volunteer-driven. You just never know what the volunteers will think of, and they challenge us to go further.”
Destination familiarization: Volunteers who fill this role can be sourced through the local CVB, but they can come from other sources as well. The NSA works with local volunteers from communications colleges or those recommended by nonprofits at the meeting destination. Oftentimes they are Gen X or baby boomer professional speakers in the area. Their presence effectively provides “local flavor,” says Martin-Bilbrey. Influence 2015 will be held at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, “so we want to feature people from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia,” she says. “They’re going to know the ‘insider secrets’ ” for local entertainment and dining. “Last year one of the local volunteers organized a ‘yacht day’ in San Diego, for example.”
Onsite logistical assistance: This is a major area where volunteers are deployed, and the duties are many and varied, including bag-stuffing, greeting and providing directions to delegates, and plenty of miscellaneous work in the session rooms, such as passing out handouts and evaluations. “They scan people as they go into the session rooms so we can get good demographic information, and help people get seated for keynotes,” says Tonia Fykes, CEM, CMP, managing director, operations, conventions and conferences department, BIO.
“Mainly we rely on them to check all the meeting rooms,” says Doyle. “They go around to make sure that the AV equipment is there, that the speakers don’t need anything, that it’s not too cold or too hot, that the water is refreshed at the meeting table, and then we send them around to take attendance after the session starts.”
During especially popular sessions or other activities, there may be a dearth of volunteers, as many will have set their schedules to attend that session. In that scenario, many planners will rely on what are known as “floaters.” “We absolutely do have days where people prefer to do something other than volunteer,” says Fykes. “So on any given day we’ll have up to 20 floaters, and their responsibility is to just step in whenever and wherever they can. The day that they’re floating is considered their volunteer day, and something always comes up.”
Doyle, who also works with floaters, concurs: “You just never know until you get onsite what you’re going to need help with.”
In order to get the best performance from volunteers and ensure they have a pleasant experience (that “win-win” situation), associations must strive to make a good impression on the participants by laying out exactly what their time commitments will be and what certain roles entail. Whether or not they are vocal about it, volunteers will get a “bad impression” of the association if they end up thinking, “This isn’t what I signed up for” once onsite.
“We go through an application process where we explain to them what their assignments are going to be,” says Fykes. “And there are times when they say, for example, that they don’t want to do surveys in the exhibition hall and would rather do a session room. And we try as much as we can to make those changes.”
After the position has been accurately established and accepted, the next step is training in that role, where they also are introduced to their “supervisor” and fellow volunteers. That’s the first opportunity planners have to cultivate a team mentality among the volunteers and perhaps discover which ones will work well together. The NSA strongly emphasizes the training process for new volunteers. “We do a solid three months of training with our volunteers, and that includes staff as well, because we want to make sure that everybody who is representing us onsite has the information to succeed,” says Martin-Bilbrey. “Especially in an organization where you’re peer-to-peer, you never want to feel like you have to say, ‘I don’t know that, and I don’t know how to find the answer.’ It doesn’t look professional.”
During their work, volunteers should be extended the same courtesies and respect as a staff member, but as much as possible, their work should feel more like volunteering than paid labor. One way to achieve that is to limit shifts to a reasonable length, allowing them more flexibility with their time. “My rule of thumb for volunteer activities is no longer than four hours,” says Martin-Bilbrey. They also can be reminded of everything they can do during their off time, as some may get too wrapped up in the volunteer role. “We encourage them to go to the sessions when they’re not working, let them know they can attend the presidential reception and take advantage of all the opportunities that the meeting presents,” says Doyle. For a few years, the American Historical Association was awarding a $100 gift card to the best volunteer in each work area, but there are many less expensive ways of appropriately thanking volunteers.
“Make sure that you’re featuring them online, in print and all the different ways you can do it, whether they say they need recognition or not,” says Martin-Bilbrey. “And add those little touches (one year we did cookies dropped off in their room) that say, ‘I value what you’re giving the organization; I know what you’re giving up, and without that we couldn’t do it.’ ”
It’s also important to keep in mind that logistical volunteers can sometimes be “intellectual” volunteers: They can have valuable ideas on how to improve the conference, based on their observations. “We open up feedback from all the volunteers because if we don’t understand what they’re thinking, how can we improve?” says Martin-Bilbrey. For example, due in part to feedback from some younger volunteers over the years, the NSA has adopted more interactive, shorter learning experiences within “learning lounges.” “We had always done the traditional 60-minute breakouts as well as the main session. This year the learning lounge features Ignite sessions, five-minute bursts.”
Perhaps the greatest “win” for an association is when positive volunteer experiences lead to longtime engagement with the organization and convention. “We’ve had some that have attended the conference years after they were student volunteers,” says Gibbs. “Volunteering does help with our future year registration,” Fykes confirms. “I expect that there will be a number of volunteers from this year’s Philadelphia meeting that may say, ‘This is worth me paying the registration rate to go out to San Francisco for the BIO convention next year.’ ” AC&F