If you’ve planned an event for a non-profit organization, than you know having sufficient staffing at can be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face. Non-profit’s don’t always have budgets allowing for the necessary staff to fulfill crucial roles for a successful event. As a result, what little key staff are available take on many roles and responsibilities to ensure these functions are carried out. While these roles and responsibilities fulfill primary, collateral and even tertiary duties, it comes at a cost. Primary duties can require so much time and attention, that collateral and tertiary duties fall by the wayside. In some instances, all three duties suffer, as each fight for that staff members complete and undivided time and attention. However, If executed on strategically and with care, a solid volunteer corps can help build the capacity of your key staff, ensuring the necessary duties are carried out. But this isn’t an easy feat. It requires more than just a carefully crafted call to action asking for support. It requires volunteers be as involved in the planning as their key staff counterparts.
Before I continue, let me just say I understand the angst you may be feeling at the thought of integrating volunteers into vital roles at important events. So let me clarify two things; one, you’re reading my suggestion correctly, that by integrating volunteers into key roles you’re doing you and the non-profit staff a favor, and two, let me reiterate, it’ll take work for any organization going this route. Just like any of the key staff, if you screen, equip and train correctly, a volunteer can be equally qualified, and in some instances, more qualified as key staff. However, executing on this correctly needs to begin much sooner in the planning process than most allow. This means getting your volunteer administrator involved in the conversation at the inception of event planning. At the moment one asks “do we have sufficient funds or in-kind donations?” the next question should be “do we have sufficient staffing support?” In many instances, money can be moved around to fund events from state to state, whereas, human capital cannot. When seeking support from volunteers, there’s a phase of necessary rapport building that needs to happen before you can gain their commitment. When planning events in locations with less active or robust volunteer networks, more time has to be budgeted in advance to insure these relationships are formed prior to the event.
Over the year’s I’ve seen some spectacularly planned events, and some that were borderline failures. In cases where you’re hosting an event with too few staff, you’re setting up those key staff to be overwhelmed, overworked and pushed beyond their capacity. In cases where you have the helping hands, but you’re planning events in too close succession, you run the risk of burnout and fatigue, where what key staffing you do have is pushed beyond their ability to successfully perform all the necessary functions. Here are some ways you can integrate volunteers into your events, allowing you to sidestep some of the usual landmines like fatigue or being short staffed.
Put volunteer recruitment at forefront of planning: Include the volunteer administrator into the planning dialogue early. They’ll have the best understanding of where the organization has volunteer support geographically. Have frank dialogue with them, and ask about the reality of where support exists, and how much lead time they’ll need to generate that support if nonexistent. Getting them involved early will enable them to share their knowledge of the volunteer corps demographic and location. This will help eliminate shortsighted planning of events in locations where little support exists or those that aren’t accessible to volunteers. Additionally, you’ll be able to identify times of year’s or locations where your organization may actually be competing for the same resources against other similarly missioned organizations or events.
Avoid competing events: Look beyond yourself, and identify other events that may detract from your gaining support. Check local calendar and event listings and avoid location or times of the year when popular events are scheduled. Be sure to set a date that doesn’t compete with the availability of those you’re seeking support from. By understanding the demographics, locations and significant dates of those who support your organization, you’ll be in a better position to solicit for support while not forcing those same volunteers to choose between your event or another.
Provide full list of requirements to volunteer administrator: Work with the volunteer administrator and communicate skills and staffing needs, in addition to all the necessary information a person needs to know to make a commitment (date, time, location, job descriptions). Provide this information months in advance based on how long it’ll take to secure the volunteer support. Providing information in advance allows those charged with volunteer engagement to actively seek out the necessary talent with the time needed. By sharing details of dates, times, tasks and locations involved will help the volunteer administrator gain a commitment, making the ask of volunteers less uncertain.
Share your knowledge, don’t hoard it: This all goes back to properly equipping and training the volunteers. Do this by allowing the volunteer staffing access to the same depth of knowledge as their key staff counterparts. Be sure that you’re proactively engaging volunteers by imparting that knowledge onto them, and being available to answer any questions they may have. Set up multiple touch-points virtually with web conference tools or in person orientations prior to the event. Knowledge is power. By sharing it, you’ll empower the volunteer staff to carry a much heavier load comparable to key staff with success and greater ease.
Go the extra step: Pay attention to the small details. Beyond the knowledge, take the time to make their integration seamless by outfitting them in proper apparel. By simply giving the volunteers organizational apparel, a name tag and other affiliated items, you communicate trust. It’ll communicate to event attendees that you have faith in the volunteer staff, and showcase uniformity. This will also decrease any disparity seen by those same attendees who have frequently ask questions or engage with volunteers.
Empower the volunteer staff: Once trained and equipped, you need to provide guidelines on how the volunteer staffing will carry out their duties. Draft up specific job descriptions and responsibilities that volunteers will fulfill. Manage your risk by having volunteers agree to “shall” and “shall not's” that indicate the authority or limitations they’re working within. Doing this will help provide operating guidance on what volunteers can and cannot do, or if they need to seek permission to carry out specific functions during the event. Empowering volunteers to make decisions will do two things; one, provide them some ownership, instilling pride into the work they perform, and two, carry a load that is now being delegated to them by key staff of the organization.
Depending on the event in question, some of these suggestions can be amplified, or scaled back to an appropriate level. However, in an industry where burnout and fatigue are often times reasons that paid employees leave, empowering volunteers to shoulder that load can be the difference between high turnover, or high retention. That being said though, this type of effort does take some work, and will require those who want to see this change enacted, be invested with both time and resources to equip volunteers for success.
There will undoubtedly be some anxiety at the thought of giving such levels of responsibility to someone who’s not bound by an employment contract. However, through the proper training, equipping and game planning in advance, much of the risks involved can truly be mitigated. Through the investment of time and resources into volunteers, you can create a vast network of support, that when called upon, can effectively shoulder a load that is often carried by paid staff. There will be some legwork that needs to be done in advance, however, investing into volunteers and having them integrated in with paid staff will only further your capability to deliver on your mission and expand your reach. Like most things in life, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Volunteers are no different. Don’t take my word for it, put in the work, and find out for yourself.