Mike Guswiler 2013-06-21 00:50:13
ENGAGING COMMUNITY VOLUNTEERS Engaging Community Volunteers – The Secret to a Successful Sporting Event WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING a successful sporting event, one planning element cannot be overlooked, no matter the sport – volunteer recruitment. An event cannot be successful without volunteers. Yet this all-important function can be a daunting task to manage. Consider the obstacles. First, uniting a group of people who are not on payroll and with whom there is no history from other events — you don’t know these individuals and they don’t know each other. Then, hoping they show up for their shift. Finally, if they do, trusting they can do the job. Despite these challenges, a well-run volunteer program not only is possible – it can be a fairly smooth process with some advanced planning and foresight. When looking at volunteer coordination efforts over the years, certain lessons rise to the top in terms of how to recruit, engage and get the most out of volunteers. Put leaders in place at the top The best volunteer program begins with placing leaders in a few key positions, both at the sports commission and the sporting event itself. West Michigan Sports Commission books 60-plus sporting events per year, and at least half of these require some form of volunteer support. This is likely typical of sports commissions, which are the local resource for assisting in engaging the community in sporting events. The task should not be taken lightly, and is why managing volunteer support is ideally, a primary function of someone at the local sports commission and/or CVB. The support may range from finding as few as three volunteers for setting up a high school fencing championship to recruiting, training and supervising 300 volunteers for a one-day 5K event. Recruit a lead volunteer for largescale events While a local organizing committee may be managing the volunteers, one should be prepared for events where this isn’t the case, starting with recruiting a volunteer coordinator for large-scale events. Make sure the volunteer coordinator is passionate about an event and has a personal connection. This is a key part of the position’s success, as there needs to be a motivation for someone to give hundreds of hours of personal time to an event. When West Michigan took on responsibility for the Transplant Games of America, a community member named Patty Alexander was brought in because of a proven volunteer ethic established at previous events along with a personal passion for sports. In addition, she had been touched personally by the event mission, due to four family members undergoing heart transplants. As Patty says, “I believed in the event and wanted it to be successful, so it was easy to sell working on it to volunteers because I was passionate about it.” Build a pipeline of volunteers When it comes to staffing sporting events, it is much easier to contact people who have already expressed interest than it is to recruit from scratch. Recruit yearround for volunteers. Some ways to do this: • Secure an information booth at annual events such as college and community expos. Sign up local college students for an event newsletter about volunteer opportunities (free T-shirts are always a popular incentive). • Recruit at places where people have a natural connection to a cause or event. Local sporting events like 5K runs usually provide exhibit space and should deliver a pre-qualified crowd since attendees already care about sports. If an event is tied to a health cause, consider places where people naturally have an interest in that issue, such as hospitals. • Turn to local sporting clubs as a recruitment target, especially those related to the sporting event at hand. Chances are, they are involved already as part of the local organizing committee that was a criterion of the bid process – but if not, it should be an automatic step to contact sporting clubs associated with a sport. • Keep volunteer prospects engaged through ongoing communications. Once people have expressed interest in volunteering, check in with them regularly to remind them of opportunities. Send out regular e-newsletters detailing upcoming sporting activities that need volunteers. While not everyone will sign up for something every time, it generates interest and keeps people engaged. Understand the event Once it is time to staff up volunteers for a specific event, take time at the beginning to make sure they know the event itself – not only the sport, but also the venues and their unique needs. Volunteer coordinators should see the full space themselves to determine where to place volunteers, instead of just taking job descriptions and quantities from the event manager. There may be nuances of the event that the event planner may not notice needs a volunteer, such as a confusing entrance area, that is better served by an active volunteer who is there to give directions. Use volunteers to help personalize the event experience. Volunteers are on the front line, literally serving as the face of the event. While a sign might do the job, a personal greeter might make the event more friendly and welcoming. Be sure to consider the event magnitude when determining volunteer needs, allowing lead volunteers to assess their need for support persons to help with volunteer management. Make it easy for people to say yes Once a database of volunteer prospects has been built and the volunteer needs have been assessed for the particular event, make it easy for people to get involved: • Make volunteer recruitment a key message in marketing tools. That may mean creating a newsletter, e-mail alerts and a dedicated section on the website. • Be specific with needs. Specify in the request for volunteers the duties, length of time and other requirements. • Don’t recruit too early. This relates to the earlier point – if one recruits too early for specific events, all of the details may not be available yet, which often doesn’t become evident until closer to the event (three to four months out for a large annual event). Another reason not to recruit too early – people are less likely to drop out because they forget they made the commitment. • Consider payment if all else fails. Some organizations employ this technique to attract volunteers who might be hard to recruit otherwise. While this should be carefully considered since it can set a precedent that is difficult to change later, it can be effective for a first-time event that doesn’t have a following or one that needs many volunteers. West Michigan has assisted groups in filling slots this way on occasion, reaching out to athletic directors of area schools who are looking for fundraising projects for their booster groups as an example. Automate the process as much as possible Just as important as it is to make the process easy for volunteers, it needs to be easy for the volunteer coordinator to 40 | SDM | JULY/AUGUST 2013 manage details. • Create a system to track volunteers from the moment they sign up for more information. If possible, add people on the spot electronically into a database so that they automatically receive the next newsletter. • Automate volunteer registration. Have an e-newsletter with hyperlinks at the bottom of each event description that jump to an online registration page, automatically adding them to a database and/or sending an e-mail to the event coordinator. • Consider free online management tools like Volunteerspot.com (free or nominal monthly fee for added features). These allow you to track every aspect of a volunteer program, including volunteer contact information, volunteer positions, event schedules and other details. Once the data is entered, it can be manipulated to run reports or to send group e-mails to volunteers with information including orientation invitations or shift reminders. Plan contingencies As the saying goes, the best laid plans still can go awry, and a volunteer program is no different. Inevitably, someone will not show up for a shift, he or she will not like the job or he or she won’t be a fit for the position. That’s where flexibility comes into play. Some tips: • Staff some volunteers as floaters. These are volunteers who don’t have a specific assignment but will do whatever is needed. That way if someone can’t make their shift or doesn’t like their assignment, one of these team members steps in to help. • Consider overstaffing volunteers in critical positions. If a crucial job takes one person, consider booking two as a cushion. • Hand-pick known volunteers for important roles. It’s usually helpful if people in key functions are recruited by hand from past events. • Keep volunteer coordinators steering the ship. Volunteer coordinators need to resist the urge to jump in to fill the role of a missing volunteer. They can best serve the organization by remaining in the management role of overseeing the entire volunteer function. Reward people – and remember why they signed up Everyone wants to feel that their time is valuable, and nowhere perhaps is this more important than in volunteerism. Consider the following: • Budget for incentives, even if small. One doesn’t have to budget for an extravagant party for volunteers at the end of the event, though a small party may be an appropriate incentive after a large event. Budget for items like T-shirts or hats that volunteers can wear and keep, and some sort of food like lunch or snacks. (If the budget doesn’t allow for food, avoid scheduling shifts during meal times so people can eat before or after.) Another low-cost idea is a volunteer recognition program where gift cards donated by area businesses are awarded to volunteers who especially stood out that month. • The biggest compensation may be the event itself. Sometimes the biggest reward for a volunteer is the chance to watch the special event they are staffing – something that doesn’t cost but is priceless to the volunteer. Patty said many volunteers for the Transplant Games signed up for a specific sport because they loved it. Her advice: “Let them enjoy that part of the experience. Understand there is probably something personal for them and why they’re doing it, and make sure they can enjoy watching that event.” In the end, most successful events are supported by a strong base of volunteers. Could the event be done without them? Possibly. But would one have the ability to bring the event to the highest level in quality, experience and professionalism, with key people positioned along the way to enhance the visitor experience? Probably not. In many ways, a volunteer program can be the best asset to elevating events from average to exceptional – all the more reason to have the best possible volunteer recruitment and management program in place.
Published by Due North Consulting, Inc.. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Perspectives/1435493/164531/article.html.