By Erin Piafsky
Anyone who works on events knows that time is of the essence in the successful planning and execution of your walk/run/ride. This is absolutely true for you lucky rock stars who are tasked with managing event-day volunteers. In my last post, I talked through some volunteer recruitment strategies for the time-crunched event professional, and today, we’ll delve into ways to make your event-day volunteer management smooth and efficient.
- Plan Ahead! — Yes, this is technically a PRE-event-day tip, but doing some preliminary planning of your event needs and assignments ahead of time will go a long way toward a smooth event morning. Keep track of who has registered to volunteer, any requests they’ve made for specific roles or needs, and have a check-in list ready to rock when you arrive for event day. When your staff team is on the ground, do a course drive to plot out where your route marshals and water station(s) will be, and coordinate with other staff to make sure everyone’s on the same page (ideally, this will happen on load-in day).
- Communication is Key — In the lead-up to event day, make sure you’ve communicated clearly to your registered volunteers, informing them of all they’ll need to know ahead of time: where and when to arrive, parking details, shift times, what to bring, weather forecast…and of course, if you still need a few more people, throw in one more ask for them to bring friends! You don’t want a lack of specifics to lead to someone deciding not to come. I also recommend having communication details available for volunteers to access when they arrive at the event. At minimum, have a schedule of the day and your phone number available for them to snap a picture of, access via QR code, or jot down when they arrive.
- Be Ready for No-Shows — That said, despite your best efforts at communication, no-shows are inevitable, so be prepared that some people on your check-in list won’t come for one reason or another. Pad your recruitment goals from the beginning, to account for attrition (if you’ve been doing your event for a while, you probably have an idea of what percent of volunteers don’t show, but if you’re not sure, figure out how many volunteers you need, then add 20%). And make sure you’ve prioritized volunteer roles so that, if your numbers do come in lower than you expected, you’re sure that the most important jobs get filled first.
- Pro Tip: I very rarely assign volunteers to specific jobs before event day. There’s just too much that can change or go sideways, and being able to assign volunteers in a flexible way is so important. The last thing you want is to have 10 people pre-assigned to t-shirt distribution, then have none of them show up and have to move people around from other roles they were promised in advance.
- First is NOT the Worst — When the first volunteer arrives (there’s almost always at least one who shows up ahead of schedule), I take advantage of this go-getter and ask them to stay close and help in the Volunteer Tent. They can assist with checking in other volunteers, handing out their t-shirts, and generally keeping an eye on things when I inevitably get called away to deal with something else. After the initial check-in rush has settled, I can reassign this person to another role if necessary, but often, they end up sticking around to help inventory shirts, clean up the tent, and jump in with whatever else I might need.
- Delegate Whenever Possible — If you have volunteers who have been part of your event before, or folks who you can tell are natural leaders (this often becomes apparent during pre-event communications…they’re the ones with lots of questions!), use that enthusiasm and knowledge to give them a little more responsibility. Usually, you can identify these stand-outs in advance, and ask them specifically to step up and help you a little more closely. Can you assign someone to be your Festival Captain, and keep an eye on all of the other Festival Volunteers? Is there a volunteer who is familiar with the event course from previous years? Ask them to be your roving Course Captain, making sure all of the course marshals and water stations are set up and supported (if your event utilizes golf carts or other vehicles, you may need to make sure your rental agreements and insurance allow for a volunteer to use these). As volunteer manager, you’re responsible for keeping a lot of plates spinning, and the less running around and — let’s be honest — herding of cats that you personally have to do, the smoother the whole event will run.
- Roll With It! — No matter how prepared you are, things will almost certainly go wrong. Keep a positive attitude, and never let your volunteers see you stressing out. If you give off a vibe of “we’re all in this together,” the volunteers will feel that way too. Flexibility and creative problem-solving are essential!
- Say Thank You — Finally — and I’m sure this goes without saying — be sure to thank your volunteers, early and often. Give individual thanks as volunteers check-in, and as you make your way around the event throughout the day, call out volunteers who go above and beyond with additional thanks. These small acts of gratitude can work wonders when it comes to retaining volunteers for future events.
- Pro Tip: If you have a chance to address your volunteers as a group before they take their positions, ask for a show of hands of people who have volunteered before, and those who are first timers. Recognizing volunteers in this way makes them feel special about what they’ve brought to the event, lets them know how important they are, and how much their time and talent are appreciated.
Managing volunteers is an acquired skill, and one that gets honed and polished over time (if you had seen me on my first few events as volunteer manager, you’d be wondering how on earth I was qualified to give advice to anyone else on the subject!). Do you have go-to tips for a smooth volunteer experience on your events? Share them in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org any time! Always great to hear from my fellow VMs!
Erin Piafsky is the Volunteer Programs Manager at Event 360. She is based in Minneapolis, and when she’s not herding cats, she can be found playing volleyball or cornhole in local leagues, dominating pub trivia, or snuggling with her husband and doggos while bingeing the MCU.