You’re a nonprofit planner or, in today’s economy, maybe just a planner on a tight budget. Regardless, you know that in events, it’s all about the details. But who can focus on details with so many moving pieces, only one of you and no cash for extra help?
In 2009 we implemented a volunteer program at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It has been a huge success. We began with 450 attendees and 35 volunteers at our major event. The event has since doubled in terms of attendees, but we managed to decrease the number of volunteers — 25 for 900 attendees.
We identified collapsible positions: having one person do a job that used to require two. Someone working morning registration, for example, will help with afternoon event signage.
It’s also important to provide volunteers with as many details in advance as possible. Inadequate information leads to confusion, which snowballs into larger problems. For example, if registration volunteers don’t know what to do when attendees register, the registration line grows and bottlenecks occur. This leads to angry attendees, running behind schedule and fire hazards, to name a few possible issues.
Creating a good volunteer program increases event productivity, saves time and allows for better execution while giving volunteers a better event experience. Creating a volunteer program sounds daunting, but it’s not as bad as you think. Let’s go through the steps.
Write an overview for each event staffing position. Keep each to a paragraph, and/or include bullets of duties under each. For example:
- Greet attendees.
- Hand attendee conference bag/name tag.
- Names with two last names will be in alphabetical order by the second last name. For example “John William Smith” would be under “Smith.”
- Names with a hyphenated last name will be in alphabetical order by the first last name. For example “John William-Smith” would be under “William-Smith.”
- Answer attendee questions, being aware of restroom and workshop locations, etc.
Reach out to your organization’s network (members, supporters, current volunteers, event attendees, etc.). These people have expressed an interest in your group and may be willing to volunteer – particularly if there are incentives.
These can include free or reduced event registrations, promotional gifts such as shirts or key chains, and even an appreciation event.
Offering a volunteer appreciation happy hour, breakfast or reception is an added cost, but it saves money in the long run. For example, you have 25 volunteers working eight hours each. A consultant would cost at least $20 an hour or a total of $4,000. You’d spend about $40 per person on a happy hour reception, a total of $1,000. Your volunteers will feel appreciated, and you’ll have saved $3,000.
When confirming volunteers, send them a date and time for orientation. This orientation should be led by the planner at the event venue and take place shortly before the event. It should:
- Include a meet-and-greet with the volunteers.
- Cover details of each position and solicit questions.
- End with a walk through the event space, so you can point out key locations (restrooms, registration, etc.).
Appoint a volunteer lead
Volunteers take a lot off a planner’s plate but can have questions or need to cancel at the last minute. You may not have time for these hurdles on-site. This is where the volunteer lead comes in.
The volunteer lead is your on-site volunteer point person. Once you’ve employed your volunteers a few times, one person may stand out and be approached to fill this position.
If not, or in the meantime, the volunteer lead could be an extra staffer, a consultant or an intern. This may add a cost, but again, in the long run, your costs are lower, your event will run more smoothly and you’ll have more time to focus on the bigger picture.
Everyone likes to be appreciated. Send volunteers a thank you note at the event’s conclusion, expressing gratitude and letting them know the event would not have been possible without them. If you can publicly thank them at the event (in a general session, at a reception) that works well, too. But always follow up with a thank you note.