Does anybody have enough staff? The answer is seldom positive in the association world, where human resources are often stretched. But the frequent availability of volunteers can be a real asset.
At the same time, working with volunteers is a different ball game than with paid staff. In everything from accountability to reliability, success in working with volunteers requires a careful approach.
“It’s imperative to have and work with volunteers,” says Rose Caple, visitor services coordinator for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Volunteers supplement our paid staff with their enthusiasm, by sharing the workload and by delivering a greater level of diversity in background and skills.”
She says that volunteers typically share their time and talents with meeting planners because they truly want to be involved in their chosen organization, which, in turn, translates into excellent service and hospitality.
“Volunteers are actually the very best people to help plan events, as long as you are selecting the right volunteers,” says Steve Garguilo, co-founder of Action Surge, a training and coaching firm in State College, Pennsylvania. He used volunteers extensively over a seven-year period of planning TEDx events around the world. In addition to taking care in choosing the right people, Garguilo advises focusing on clarity.
“Sourcing local people is a great resource as they know the geography of the city to help attendees in any number of random questions.” — Stephanie Gimmi
“The key is having a vision that the volunteers are brought into, and then giving each volunteer a very clear, specific role,” he says. “If it’s just a general pool of volunteers and it’s a free-for-all, it’s very difficult to see progress. When each person has a clear plan and accountability, they can achieve remarkable results.”
As a senior meeting planner and volunteer coordinator for the ANA Enterprise, which consists of the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the American Nurses Association and the American Nurses Foundation, Kate Battiste is high on the use of volunteers.
“For all of the conferences where we’ve had volunteers assist, it has been a positive experience,” she says. “We do make sure our volunteers are attendees that are part of our hospital network, and therefore are involved and have a stake in the conference.”
Volunteers from the local city where a conference is held, particularly those connected with the conference through their organization, can be an extremely valuable resource,
according to Battiste.
“They can answer attendees’ questions not only about the conference but also about the area, too,” she says.
Battiste recalls that last year, when the ANCC National Magnet Conference was set to be held in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, volunteers (referred to internally as co-hosts) were instrumental in helping the event take place. When planners were debating whether to go forward with the conference, association executives reached out to the chief nursing officers at the co-host hospitals.
“During the calls with the co-hosts, they overwhelmingly said yes, they wanted us to come and that the city needed us to come,” Battiste says. Planners ended up incorporating stories and images from the storm in the conference’s general session.
“We didn’t lose any volunteers or really have to change anything in the roles that they provided,” she notes.
Sometimes, working with volunteers can have long-term benefits. Kerry Bannigan, co-founder of Nolcha Shows, an event production company for fashion designers in New York, sees volunteerism as a two-way street. Along with benefit to the organization, the work can be a career enhancer for those hoping to gain experience, earn school program credits or foster overall relationship-building.
Bannigan recalls being introduced to a potential volunteer who was hoping to gain work experience. “After one event, I saw a lot of potential in the candidate as she handled live issues effectively and with great initiative, along with handling everything onsite with ease.”
That was five years ago. Today, the volunteer is still on board in a key full-time employee role. To top it off, one part of her job is to recruit and handle event volunteers.
What’s most important in managing volunteers? Effective communication, beginning with training, may be at the top of the list.
“The proper training of volunteers and explaining their assignment is mandatory,” says Greg Jenkins, a partner with Bravo Productions in Long Beach, California, who has planned meetings for a variety of associations. “I’ve found that recruiting at least two staff coordinators who can oversee volunteers works best.” He feels that this allows a hands-on approach while the volunteers are working and can free up the meeting planner to deal with more pressing issues.
He also emphasizes the need to keep volunteers informed. “Make sure you provide all the who, what, when, where and why in addressing your volunteers,” he says. “That includes everything from dress code and etiquette policy to parking, meals, breaks, where to congregate and who to see upon arrival. Be clear about your expectations for their service.”
Battiste advocates keeping volunteers involved throughout the event planning process with conference calls and other communications. By the time the event is held, they know what to expect and what is expected of them.
Ideally this means staying in contact throughout the year before the conference is held. In the process, there should be a convenient means for volunteers to ask questions and for information to be shared.
“They can be your boots on the ground and informants onsite, and can help correct anything that might be going wrong,” she says. “So, it’s valuable for them to feel they can communicate openly with you.”
At the same time, trying to communicate with too many people can lead to problems.
“Keep everyone involved, but having one main point of contact to communicate the details can keep things streamlined,” Battiste says. “Also, if you have volunteers from multiple sources, make sure you are not providing more exposure for one group than another.”
In the process, taking the time to make instructions understandable is a must. “Be very, very clear in your instructions,” says Kim Lee, manager, production for ANA Enterprise and a former volunteer coordinator.
She describes an event where volunteers were asked to help with a huge celebration parade in the general session. This involved organizing and directing hundreds of attendees in groups of five to 100 to go across the stage.
“When the celebration started, we couldn’t find them and had to pull our staff from the audience to manage it,” Lee recalls. “We were exasperated, and it turns out so were the volunteers. They were in the back of the hall waiting for instructions. Meanwhile, we were in the front of the hall and couldn’t see them.”
Planners who manage volunteers should recognize what they bring to the table, says Noreen Sumpter, a personal life coach who serves as vice president of member engagement for the National Association of Women Business Owners. In this volunteer position, she has gained insights from the viewpoint of the volunteer, as well as the meeting planner.
“Volunteers are not like the volunteers of old,” she says. “Today’s volunteers bring a world of expertise. It’s not like our mothers’ form of volunteering in licking stamps, serving tea and so forth.”
This means not only recognizing their talents, but also operating with a high degree of flexibility.
“When you work with volunteers, remember that they are indeed volunteers,” says Lisé Puckorius, CEO of the OLC Education & Conference Center, a conference and training venue in Rosemont, Illinois. “They may not be available during the day, so you have to be flexible to meet with them on their time, which could be in the evening, early mornings, on a weekend and yes, even holidays.”
Puckorius encourages her staff to work as volunteers to understand what some of them go through. Frequently, volunteers are under-appreciated or unrecognized, she says. Walking a mile in their shoes is helpful to identifying ways you can personally recognize and thank volunteers for their time.
It’s also wise to lay out clear expectations. “It’s not unusual to have a contract of sorts with volunteers,” Puckorius says. Having volunteers sign a document that outlines the expectations and the time commitment can be useful to all concerned.
Adjusting communications to fit different roles and expectations is also imperative, she notes. This includes meetings.
“As part of setting expectations at the onset, communicate any meetings that require face-to-face attendance vs. those that can be participated in either virtually or by phone,” Puckorius says. “You may find there are more efficient ways to communicate with your volunteers using technology — so think out of the box.”
If at all possible, align volunteers’ passions with their projects, Puckorius advises. “They’ll be more excited about contributing to areas they’re interested in or have experience with — and they may even come up with new ideas to make your meeting better.”
Defining volunteer roles during preliminary planning is another helpful strategy.
“Create your volunteer schedule before recruiting so you know how many people you need in the various roles,” says Lauren Cramer, chief event planner for North Andover, Massachusetts-based Turn-Key Events. “Think about all the tasks that need to be done, not just who is working the registration desk.” She warns against overlooking needs for traffic monitors, room monitors and other similar roles.
Stephanie Gimmi, senior meeting planner for ANA Enterprise, emphasizes that it’s important to understand the volunteer base.
“Build in backups for the important jobs, and keep floaters that can fill in anywhere,” she says. “Sourcing local people is a great resource, as they know the geography of the city to help attendees in any number of random questions.”
She adds that maintaining a limited number of contacts can help avoid confusion. This includes designating coordinators who are responsible for disseminating information to their staffs. A simple step, such as having volunteers wear a specific shirt in a designated color, can help make them identifiable during a conference.
Recruiting extra volunteers will pay off, notes Meagan Tromburg, program manager for Total Event Resources, a Chicago meeting and event planning company. She recommends recruiting 20 to 30 percent more volunteers than are needed.
“Chances are, some will not show up on event day,” she says. “If they all show up, there is typically no shortage of tasks to help with.”
She also advises taking extra steps to ensure effective management. Ideally, this will include designating an event manager to take on the role of volunteer manager. This staff member can create training documents, lead training and supervise the volunteers onsite.
Training documents should cover details such as contact info, working hours, attire, parking, who to approach with questions and tasks they will complete — as well as the overall purpose for their work.
“Make sure they understand what your event is about and what the purpose is, so they know exactly why they are there,” Tromburg says. “They need to be prepared to answer any questions in case they are asked.”
Along with face-to face contact, preliminary discussions can be held via conference call or services like GoToMeeting, Tromburg adds. Content should include expectations for each volunteer, such as basic knowledge about the event itself.
Garguilo is also a fan of virtual event planning, where it’s not necessary to have face-to-face meetings to plan. “For many events, we had a kickoff meeting in person to all align on the vision, then everything was done remotely using tools like Slack, which are great for keeping everyone coordinated,” he says.
In working with an out-of-town client, Tromburg used detailed meeting agendas for weekly committee reconnects that her team hosted via a real-time video conferencing platform.
“The platform allowed us to be visually present at the meetings and not miss all of the nonverbal cues that mean so much,” she says. “We were also able to screen share to collaborate on documents and plans in the moment. This led to efficient communication and, ultimately, efficient planning.”
The planner would recap decisions, action items and next steps after the meeting, and then post them on a shared platform for all committee members and the event team to review.
“Easy is the name of the game,” Tromburg says. “You need to predetermine systems and solutions to make it painless to collaborate and share information.”
She points out that with committees and volunteers, you are often partnering with people who have regular jobs, family commitments and other obligations that take precedence over their volunteer roles.
“Don’t hesitate to check in with them if they seem to ‘check out’ for a period,” she says. “If they have over-committed themselves and cannot fill their volunteer responsibilities, give them an out. It is better to engage a new volunteer who has the bandwidth to assist.”
Regardless of the communication mode, attentive management is vital, according to Bannigan.
“The most successful way to work with volunteers is to ensure they report to a key member of the core event team so they have leadership,” she says. She notes that efforts to understand each individual’s strengths and interests will pay off. “This ensures that you get maximum impact out of the work, and also that they are engaged to deliver.”
Obviously, the work contributed by volunteers is deserving of gratitude. A step that should never be missed, according to Puckorius, is extending the proper appreciation.
“Do remember to thank volunteers personally and publicly,” she says. “If they are thanked on a website or social media, that then is seen by many more people today … and forever.”
She adds that social media should not replace a personal, handwritten thank-you note, but serve as an additional recognition effort.
“Keep them happy,” Tromburg says. “Feed them and give them breaks. A small gift or giveaway is also always appreciated.” Other measures include offering to cover their local travel costs to and from the event.
Jenkins advises making sure the volunteers feel warm, welcomed and appreciated throughout the meeting or event.
“Most volunteers want to perform well and fulfill the meeting planner’s needs,” he says. “If the meeting planner is cold, aloof and treats the volunteer as a second-class citizen, you will never get these volunteers back. And if it’s a multi-day meeting, he adds, the planner may end up short of help.
Finally, don’t overlook the possibility of learning from volunteers.
“Listen to their ideas,” says Jenkins. “A meeting planner doesn’t have to be the know-it-all,” he says. “Volunteers may have also participated in numerous projects and bring a plethora of knowledge to your meeting.”
This might include encouraging open discussion before an event, as well as fostering opportunities to provide post-event feedback through a briefing after a meeting or a brief online survey. AC&F