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Improving the Volunteer Experience at Special Events

Well-managed and happy volunteers can have a big impact on the success of your special event fundraiser. I’ve had the unique experience of both volunteering and supervising volunteers at high-profile special events.   Below are twelve tips to make volunteering a more pleasant and rewarding experience for everyone involved:

  1. Recruit 1/3 to ½ more volunteers than you think you need.
    Volunteers drop out at the last minute. They don’t show up when they’ve confirmed. They wander off. And, most critically, something unexpected is likely to occur (they always do at special events) that you hadn’t considered and you will appreciate the extra hands on deck.
  2. Plan to orient the volunteers at least two-hours before the event.
    Closer to the event is unrealistic. You will be running around with last-minute issues. Anything more than two-hours and you risk losing volunteers to boredom.
  3. Give volunteers a phone number for the person they should call in case of a problem.
    Otherwise, volunteers will need to leave their assignments to find you.  Don’t forget to have everyone put their phones on vibrate. It will be hard to hear a phone ring in a noisy event.
  4. Orient volunteers about the entire event not just the one assignment they have.
    Guests will ask them questions, especially volunteers sitting at registration and auction checkout. “I don’t know,” does not inspire your guests’ confidence or help to open guests’ checkbooks. If you can physically walk the volunteers through the event, it will be easier for them to remember the details and be more fun for them.
  5. Hand volunteers a brief list of answers to the FAQs you expect from guests.
    Common questions include: When does the auction close? Do you have to be present to win an auction? Do you ship auction items?
  6. Feed your volunteers.
    It doesn’t have to be the same food that you are feeding your paying guests. It shows appreciation and it helps control the amount of probably-more-expensive-food that they’d otherwise eat during the event.
  7. Even if you feed them, expect volunteers to eat some of the event’s passed food.
    They are human. If they love shrimp and a tray of shrimp passes in front of them a dozen times, they are going to eat one. If they eat ten, that’s a problem.
  8. Plan a break during the evening for them to enjoy the event.
    Most volunteers will take a break like this anyway. If you schedule it, you control the number of people who are wandering off at one time and you can confirm that your volunteer coverage remains adequate.
  9. Shift volunteers’ responsibilities at some point during the event.
    If someone is checking coats, move him to watching the silent auction.  It keeps volunteers from getting too bored and let’s them see more of the action, an incentive to volunteer again next time.
  10. Remember, nature calls on volunteers too.
    Volunteers need to drink water and go to the bathroom.  Have at least one volunteer assigned to check-in with and stand-in for other volunteers. Otherwise, volunteers will need to leave their assignments unmanned when nature calls.
  11. Consider giving gift bags to volunteers as a thank you at the end of the event.
    If you have extra gift bags from the event, that’s great but you can also create special, cheaper gift bags. Items in the volunteers’ gift bag could include charity branded mugs and t-shirts.   It’s a nice, cost-effective way to thank them and remind them of a fun (hopefully) and rewarding night.
  12. Treat your volunteers like prospective donor.
    Keep it positive. Don’t gossip or complain to them. If your volunteers aren’t in a financial position to donate dollars to you now, (They are already donating time!), it’s likely they know someone who is. Maybe it’s their parents, their co-workers, their employer but just about every volunteer knows someone who could make a donation to your charity.
    If they have a bad experience, believe me, they will share it with anyone who will listen. Similarly, if they have a great experience, they will share it with their friends, family, colleagues, and other potential donors long after the event. A recommendation from someone you know is one of the leading reasons people choose to donate to a charity.  Volunteers can be, and should be, your greatest advocates.
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