By Amy Schwager & Robin Shapiro

Producing an event is like putting together a giant puzzle. Each piece is unique and integral to the success of the event. But what happens when one of your puzzle pieces is missing the day of the event? More specifically, what happens when you don’t have enough volunteers show up?

A few years ago, we were introducing a brand new event in the Phoenix area and we needed about 125 volunteers to support it. As event day neared, we saw that volunteer registration wasn’t picking up in line with runner registration, instead it became more sluggish. We sent out the call to all of our area contacts, sponsors, partners and all registered participants requesting help with volunteer registration. More registrations trickled in but we knew that volunteer support would still be slim on event day. We made adjustments to our volunteer plan and hoped for a high turn-out on event day.

Event day arrived and our hopes for a high turn-out were dashed. Less than 50% of the registered volunteers showed up. We had 46 volunteers available to fill the need for 125 and about 45 minutes to come up with a plan and deploy the volunteers to action before runners would begin arriving.

We all wish we had a can of fairy dust ready to sprinkle at that moment, the moment we realize that our sweet dear volunteers we were counting on, didn’t show up. Since fairy dust isn’t always available, here are some steps we took to support the needs of the event without pushing the panic button.

  1. Set the expectation with the rest of your staff that volunteer support will be minimal.
  2. Evaluate the areas (jobs) that are most critical. Staff those areas first, but reduce the number of volunteers to the bare minimum.
  3. Re-distribute the volunteers that you had previously assigned to lower priority areas and have them support the areas that are mandatory.
  4. Ask for help. Maybe you have a participant who is finished with their event experience, but is sticking around waiting for a friend or a ride home. Ask them to step in and donate their time.
  5. Make sure the volunteers have a GREAT time. The goal is to retain the volunteers who did show up to ensure that they come back next year and bring a friend. Make sure their experience is fun, not overwhelming or stressful. Thank them repeatedly. Give them a small token of thanks.

But the reality is…be ready for the no shows. It isn’t fun. But that is what happens with volunteer management. In our experience, a normal ‘show up’ rate is 75%. Expect it.

Try investing more time focusing on the volunteers that are active and committed instead of getting frustrated with the ones that do not show up. We work with volunteers every day and the best way to ensure they will show up is to create relationships with them and make them feel that they are part of the process, give them ownership and help them realize that the event is at a loss without them.

Engage your volunteers. Do not rely on just one method of communication to get your volunteers to show up. It is about calling them, emailing them, and maybe even meeting with them in person.

Lastly, it is important to remind your volunteers of their importance in your organization and emphasize the ultimate impact of their contribution. Make sure they know that they are making a difference for the cause.

Think about your volunteer program. What are you doing to make sure your volunteers show up? What tips do you have for adjusting the plan when volunteer turn out is low and the can of fairy dust is nowhere to be found? Leave your comments below and we look forward to learning from your insight as well.

Amy Schwager has been with Event 360 more than 12 years and has supported volunteer programing for a myriad of events; 5Ks for a few hundred people to multi-day events for thousands of participants.

As Manager of Volunteer Operations for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day® , Robin gets to combine her love of volunteerism and leadership development with endurance events. She currently volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girls on the Run, and the American Youth Literacy Foundation. 

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