Most public events these days rely on volunteers to make the event happen. A core organizing team likely makes most of the decisions, but volunteers — whether throughout the year, seasonal, or only day-of — can make or break an event.
Here are 7 tips to get you started working with volunteers:
- Have an onboarding process in place for newcomers. It can be an FAQ page, a wiki or forum entry, an automated email, a folder in a shared Dropbox, or a README doc on Github. Whatever you do, make sure that new people have access to the information they will need.
- Have a list of tasks that new people can help with right away. This is a great way to get them started contributing immediately and feeling like they are needed and useful. Jobs do this with new employees, and so should event organizers.
- Don’t put up barriers to entry. This works hand-in-hand with #2 above. Ask volunteers to read over a description and suggest edits before it gets posted to your site. Or to test a registration page to be sure no errors are found. Or call/email to reserve a vendor. Ask them where they want to help, how much time they can volunteer for, and if they need anything to feel more comfortable.
- Be available for people to come to you with questions. Make organizers’ contact information available — whether via email, text, or a private message on Slack — so no one has to guess or search for it if there is a problem.
- When you notice people’s strengths, acknowledge them. Thank them for what they are contributing, and definitely don’t treat them like free labor. Ask volunteers what they want to be doing and encourage them to grow. The more you get to know your volunteers, the more you can find the right fit for them within your organization and beyond. You can encourage an artistic volunteer to join the design team, where they could share their ideas. A super friendly local volunteer could become a trusted speaker escort who can suggest sight-seeing opportunities to out-of-towners. And you could connect a recent grad or between-jobs volunteer with a mentor in their field.
- Keep a wishlist of everything you one day hope the event will be able to offer attendees. Big and small, what are the things that you envision for the future? Refer back to this list regularly — consider having it as a wiki entry or other editable document for anyone to add to — and see what you can make happen right now. Resources, time, and skill sets change, so utilize what volunteers can help with, and add new features when you can.
- Listen to feedback and evolve as necessary. There is bound to be something that you overlook. Because we’re imperfect humans who can’t possibly know everyone else’s needs, and so are constantly learning. But how you react and respond could very well determine whether volunteers again want to work with you in the future. Acknowledge the issue, fix the problem with input from the volunteer (sometimes you will need both a short-term and a long-term solution), apologize for creating the problem, do what you can to learn from the mishap and apply it across your organization, and do everything in your power to not ever repeat the mistake.
Working with volunteers can truly make your organization and your planning process come together. Welcome them, treat them well, and reward them for all the skills, knowledge, and hard work they bring to your event.
For more info on event planning, check out my posts on choosing venues and welcoming attendees.