By Amy Schwager & Robin Shapiro

You know that one volunteer? I know you do. She arrives early with a smile, stays late, knocks your socks off with her sheer awesomeness and leaves you wondering where she has been all your event life and what you need to do to make sure she comes back next year. For us, her name is Sarah. Sarah volunteered with us at this year’s Susan G. Komen Washington D.C. Race for the Cure®. She arrived early and immediately stepped up as a leader by grouping volunteers and shuttling them to their assigned areas. On her own initiative, she started giving other volunteers tips on best practices for using the event walkie-talkies. See! This is why we love her. After her job was technically done and she was free to go, she floored us by mentioning that she is a trained first responder and would be glad to put on a red medical hat and support our lean medical team out on the route. We wanted to hug her. In fact, we did.

The “Sarahs” are such good reminders that our sweet volunteers aren’t required to be at our event. They are donating their time and energy because something about the event and/or cause drew them in and captured their attention. It’s our responsibility and privilege to create an experience that makes them want to donate their time year after year. So what is the magic that ensures the “Sarahs” (and all the other volunteers) will keep coming back? Besides making your volunteers feel loved and appreciated every day, try some of our favorite tips to transform them into loyal volunteers:

Surprise and Delight: In our experience, highly personalized, low cost recognition makes the biggest impact. Finding out what an individual likes and delivering on that is much more meaningful than a blanket “thank you,” like a volunteer lunch or a freebie because it makes that individual volunteer feel special. For Sarah, it was a Coca-Cola. She mentioned when she arrived on site at 5 a.m. that she wished she had her morning Coke. We knew we had some cans of Coke in the staff tent so we got one and delivered it to her wrapped in a bow. It was so easy and she said it made her morning. Next year, we will have a can of Coke waiting for her when she checks in. Our Food Service Volunteer Captain likes to have her team’s volunteer t-shirts pulled and packed up by size so she can pick them up and distribute them to her team herself. It takes us no more than ten minutes to do and it makes her feel like she is getting extra special treatment. Our Medical Director, who as you can imagine is a huge asset to us, mentioned that parking was a headache. So we told him that next year we would be glad to offer him VIP parking. The point here is to listen carefully to what your volunteers say and figure out ways to surprise and delight them. It will leave them feeling special and they will want to return the favor via service to your event.

Tap Volunteer Motives: How well do you know your volunteers? What do they do outside of being your volunteer? The more you know about your volunteer, the more you can identify jobs based on what they are interested in, or where they would feel comfortable contributing. You can even let your “Sarahs” design their own volunteer position. They might surprise you and design the position you never knew you always needed. The more invested they are when they arrive on site to volunteer, the better work they will do, and the greater sense of accomplishment they will feel, and the more likely they will want to come back again.

Create Relationships: What have you done to connect with your volunteers? It is really important to make sure that they feel united with you and the rest of your team who they will be serving with. Volunteers want to feel part of a collective. They are showing up to give of themselves. Show them how instrumental they are to the success of your event and how much you appreciate them. The more connected they are to you and their fellow volunteers, the more willing they are to keep committing their time. One of our dedicated volunteers who has been a key leader for us for the past fifty 3-Day events, told us “I came for the cause and stayed for the family.” The power of a relationship is magical. We have volunteers who travel across the country for us, simply because we have created a meaningful, long-lasting relationship and asked for their support.

Know Their Worth: Treat your volunteer’s donation of time with as much importance as you would a monetary donation—because your volunteers are that special ingredient that makes your event a success.

Make it a Family Affair: Provide opportunities for volunteers to bring their friends and family with them. We all know it is much more fun to spend time doing something you love with your friends and family. So make it easy for your volunteers to invite people they love to volunteer alongside them.

With a little extra sprinkle of love, we promise your volunteers will feel appreciated in the most unimaginable ways and will come back event after event, year after year to help make your event a success!

What are you doing to woo your participants to return year after year? This doesn’t just apply to volunteers either. We want to know what magic you have for making those top fundraisers and rock star team captains come back, too. Leave your comments below and we look forward to learning from your insight as well.

Amy Schwager has been with Event 360 for 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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