By Erin Piafsky
Over our two decades as industry leaders in peer-to-peer fundraising event production, we here at Event 360 have gotten very good at planning and executing events with a very lean staff. Often, we have less than a dozen people working year-round on the planning phases of our projects, and then we bring them to life with a team as small as 5-6 staff on the ground. While these pint-sized powerhouse teams are adept at making event magic (can it still be called “magic” when so much WORK goes into it? I think so!), there is another essential element that none of our events would be possible without: volunteers.
No matter how amazing your staff team is, your event will still require lots of extra hands on event day to manage parking, welcome and check-in participants, distribute t-shirts, hand out water and snacks, and help the staff with whatever is needed. This is where your volunteers come in.
I’ve been a volunteer manager on numerous projects for six years, and I’ve picked up a trick or two to help streamline the volunteer jigsaw puzzle. In this post, I’ll start with some tips for pre-event organization that go a long way in using the crunched time you have most efficiently.
Be a Smart Recruiter — Perhaps the biggest challenge for a volunteer manager is getting volunteers on board in the first place. In 2021 and 2022, we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people interested in volunteering (turns out everyone — participants AND volunteers — really missed events during the pandemic!), but that hasn’t always been the case. So, knowing how to find and engage people willing to help is essential.
- Go Back to the Well — If you’re fortunate enough to be working on an event that’s been around for a while, your first stop should be old email lists of past volunteers. These are folks who already have a connection with your event/organization, and that’s a great head start. If you don’t have historic lists of volunteers, ask your client if they do. Chances are good that those contacts are there.
- Pro Tip: Don’t give in to the urge to edit down your historic email list. It can be tempting to make assumptions about people’s interest/availability, but that’s not really your call. Send it to everyone you have an email address for, going back at least three years if possible. Leave it up to them to decide if they want to sign on again!
- Use Word of Mouth — In every recruitment email I send out, I include language asking the reader to recruit among their own circles of friends and family. I try to frame it as “volunteering is more fun when you do it with friends,” but I’m also not above sprinkling in a little urgency and a specific number with a call to action (i.e., “We still need 10 more volunteers to make this event happen. Can we count on you to bring one more person with you?”). Even if, in reality, we need 50 more people to help, an individual volunteer doesn’t need to be burdened with that goal, and asking each email recipient to try and wrangle up one buddy is something anyone can do, and breaks that 50 down into attainable mini goals. They add up.
- Get Online — How great is it that there are whole websites dedicated to connecting organizations with people who want to get involved? We’ve had great success with VolunteerMatch, a site where you can post listings about your events and needs, and volunteers who are interested can reach out with a simple click. VolunteerMatch and other sites like it have no-cost versions you can use, but if your project has the budgetary bandwidth, I highly recommend using the paid memberships to extend your reach and get your postings in front of more eyes.
- Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to post the same listing more than once using different headlines. I’ll post the exact same info under “Volunteers Needed for 5k Walk/Run in St. Paul” and “Hey Twin Cities Students: Do You Need Service Hours?” and get responses to both, depending on what catches a potential volunteer’s attention.
- People Will Do a Lot for a Pin — For many generous souls out there, the act of volunteering itself is motivation and reward enough to get involved. But for some, a little incentive can go a long way. If your event is positioned to offer some kind of small gift for folks who volunteer, you may be surprised how much of an enticement that can be. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical goodie: when I managed volunteers for MuckFest, an absurdly fun mud/obstacle run that benefited the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, we offered volunteers the chance to run the course themselves for a fraction of the normal registration fee, in exchange for working a full volunteer shift first. These limited discounted spots filled up at almost every event, guaranteeing help on an event that needed over 100 volunteers.
- Be a Friendly Follow-Upper! — When a potential volunteer contacts us or when someone registers to volunteer, I send a personal email thanking them for their interest, welcoming them to the event and making myself cheerfully available to answer any questions. Often, the connections I make with a volunteer over email in the weeks leading up to the event go a long way in establishing a bond that will keep that person engaged in the event for years to come.
- Pro Tip: In the interest of efficiency and timeliness, I do have some templated text that I use for these messages, but if the volunteer has shared any personal connection with the cause or specific needs/requests (for example, “I’d like to help, but I need to have a job where I can be seated.” or “My mother passed away from cancer last year, so this cause is important to me.”), I always address those specifics in my messaging, to let them know they’re working with a real person who cares about their experience.
In part two, I’ll dig into the ways that the time-crunched volunteer manager can make event day run as smoothly as possible. Stay tuned!
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.