Event volunteering

Event volunteering is increasingly popular as it provides a flexible way for people to volunteer.

Event volunteeringIn the recent nfpSynergy publication The New Alchemy the authors state that “volunteering takes up that most universal of human resources – time.” In the current climate there are diverse demands on people’s time and some people don’t want to commit to volunteering regularly. 

Event volunteering offers an opportunity to do a variety of tasks with a diverse group of people in different settings and a great atmosphere.  In fact, volunteers are often instrumental in generating the great atmosphere!

We regularly engage with a number of organisations who involve event volunteers.  They have identified that getting and keeping the right volunteers as one of the main challenges, along with managing expectations.  We also engage with lots of people who want to volunteer at events. They can be put off by a lengthy application process, poor communication, and ill defined roles.

This can lead to challenges for those of us who manage volunteers. Volunteers might turn up on the day with needs that you aren’t aware of or skills that you could have made use of.  Some volunteers just want to do the ‘sexy roles’ and then you can’t cover the full range of tasks on the day. 

These pages will help you with all you need to know about setting up event volunteering opportunities in your organisation – and if you’re already involving volunteers in events, we’d love to hear from you to find out what you’re doing and to learn from your experience so far.

Thinking about event volunteering

It’s best to consider the involvement of volunteers at your event from the initial planning stages.  When planning your event, consider the roles that you’ll need volunteers to undertake.  Remember that people might want some variety in their day but will also bring different skills.  Aim to create opportunities for people to feel they’re making a real difference through their volunteering.

Getting the support of wider staff teams involved is essential; are all staff clear about what they can ask volunteers to do and confident working with volunteers on the day?  We often hear that other staff don’t understand the resources needed to support volunteering.  What could you do to help raise awareness in your workplace?  You might consider inviting Board members or colleagues to attend an event as a volunteer themselves or get them involved on your planning team.

Think about how each volunteering opportunity could be adapted for different volunteers, and how you will ensure everyone’s safety. What if a large group of corporate volunteers want to help at your event, or maybe even a family?  Can you be flexible if someone says they have skills in photography but you had planned to have them on a refreshment station? 

Also don’t be afraid to think big. TEDxGlasgow recently organised an event with 355 guests, 16 speakers, 10 performers and 6 videos all in one day and all of it organised by a team of over 60 volunteers! Check out the video below to see some of the highlights from their event.

Getting started with event volunteering

It’s worth considering your audience for event volunteering opportunities.  How will you tell people about your event and the opportunity to volunteer?  Does your organisation already have volunteers, beneficiaries or ‘supporters’ that might like to get involved for the day?  A short term opportunity might appeal to busy professionals or students too, so think about how best to reach these audiences of potential volunteers.  Events at the weekend will appeal to people who have other commitments during the week.

Volunteers might not want to fill in a lengthy application form for a short term opportunity but there will be essential information you need such as contact details, personal health and support needs, and emergency contact details. On the other hand there may be some key positions, such as lead volunteers or coordinators that you will need to ask more information from. This will help you decide whether or not they are the right person for the role.

Consider when it’s best to get this information from volunteers. Maybe you don’t need it all up front but you probably don’t want it to do it on the day of event!  

Volunteers who are contributing for a short time might not have the time to attend a typical induction.  Have a think about what your induction will look like.  What are the essentials that volunteers need to know?  Is there some information that could be sent in advance or covered online?  It’s worth letting people know up front what time commitment is needed for the induction in order to take part in the event.  Hopefully, by doing this volunteers will be less likely to pull out later just because the induction doesn’t suit them.

Organisations such as the British Red Cross are increasingly asking volunteers to undertake aspects of induction online, which allows volunteers to do it in their own time as well as saving staff time. This means that on the day the induction can be site or task specific.

Getting the right people in the right role is the key to effective volunteering. Give yourself plenty of time to plan and prepare for recruitment and selection to ensure that you’re starting as you mean to go on.  Think about what a volunteer will need to know in order to be effective in their role on the day of the event.  And however it is delivered make your induction a warm welcome to the team and set your volunteers up to succeed.

Making a difference through event volunteering

No matter whether volunteers are returners or first timers it’s worth making the day special.  Get off to a good start by having a designated person to meet volunteers, welcome them to the day, brief them and thank them for their time. This is a great opportunity to emphasize how their contribution is going to make a difference.  At this point, also make sure everyone knows each other and give them time to ask any questions they might have.  Can you provide anything like a team t-shirt, free parking, accommodation or food throughout the day?  Clothing will also help make volunteers visible to the public so it serves a practical purpose too.

Consider how you are going to ensure that everyone gets a break and if there’s anything you can do to make this more of an occasion for the volunteers.  Could you provide lunch, or even tea, coffee and a tin of biscuits?  If your event is a community clean up and it’s been raining all morning, sharing some hot soup in a dry village hall will be well received! 

It’s also important to be aware of how everyone is getting on and the different personalities.  It can make a big difference to a volunteers’ day if they’re struggling with a task or not hitting it off with someone.  Be prepared to move people to different tasks and address any issues as they arise; it’s important to solve any problems immediately as you might not see volunteers again for a long period, if at all.

Depending on the size of the event and site, you could recruit volunteers as team leaders and they can have an overview throughout the day. 

At the Rob Roy Challenge volunteers are provided with a t-shirt, goodie bag and also welcomed along to the after-party, which includes food, a ceilidh and fireworks. By welcoming the volunteers the organisation celebrates the contribution everyone has made, not just the success of the participants.

Building on success of event volunteering

After the event it’s important to thank people for their contribution.  Highlighting the difference that they’ve made is a great way of motivating people.  This can happen both on the day and through follow up communication. Marie Curie thanked volunteers after their 2014 daffodil appeal with a montage of photographs.  Think about how best to recognise your event volunteers.  Internally, sharing the successes of volunteers is also a great way of raising awareness of their contribution. 

Asking volunteers for feedback on their experience can help you improve the experience for future events volunteers.  You could also consider inviting longer term volunteers to implement some of these suggested developments as a way of recognising their contribution.  Don’t forget to let everyone know what actions you’re taking as a result of their feedback.

Having taken time and resources to involve volunteers in your event, it’s worth considering how you will keep them on board for the next event; it will save you time if you don’t need to start again attracting new volunteers!  As event volunteers won’t have regular contact with your organisation how can you keep them up to date with what’s going on?  Do you have a newsletter or monthly email update you could circulate?  This will help volunteers feel connected and at the next event they can talk with confidence about your organisation. 

Do you have an online space for volunteers to talk to each other, upload pictures, download documents or sign up to future events?  Are there any talks, get-togethers or meetings that you could invite them along to?

Event volunteering offers a great opportunity to provide flexible involvement for today’s busy volunteer.  There is a great deal of variety on offer and people can take on roles with a level of commitment that suits them. Despite the unique challenges for volunteer managers, it is still possible to provide meaningful opportunities for volunteers to make a valuable contribution to your organisation.