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Balancing Act: How to Manage Event Volunteers


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Managing volunteers at an event is no easy task. It’s not unheard of for volunteers to receive briefs five minutes before an event starts and be expected to be up to speed with little direction — which could be a recipe for disaster.

Judi Godbold, director of production at FreemanXP, Singapore, said it’s vital to factor in adequate briefing time for all staff — volunteers and permanent members — before the event.

“Provide information that lists the end-to-end responsibilities, including who to contact when things go wrong,” she said, and “don’t leave anything out. Write a FAQ script so your volunteer isn’t left in the dark when speaking with guests and schedule onsite briefing time and orientation at their working environment [so they can familiarise themselves with the layout].”

Other tips include having someone always around who is more knowledgeable than the volunteers to support them if difficult questions arise and being firm but fair.

What else? Managers are advised to give clear direction and to not expect someone to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. Also, when working with volunteers, it’s recommended to outline how much time they are expected to dedicate to an event to avoid being left short-staffed at the last minute.

Marine Debatte, head of event solutions for Asia Pacific Japan/China at BI Worldwide, says she believes that criteria for selection and management of volunteers should be the same as for anyone on your team — on-site staff can make or break an event, volunteer or not.

“The difficulty with unpaid support is to keep them engaged and sometimes, just making sure they show up!” Debatte said. “As a first rule, don’t count on a full attendance, it will never happen, so plan a good 10 to 15 percent buffer for this.”

As much as possible, it’s suggested to try to allocate people based on their skills and interests, as well as taking levels of experience into account. A good fit to a position, according to Debatte, will do wonders in motivating the teams and while it can be time-consuming, encouraging team leaders to get to know volunteers before the event will help build rapport.

“Take care of them, too, with regard to food, drinks, breaks, and goodies. In the end, just like anyone on your team, volunteers need to feel like an integral part of the staff,” Debatte said. “Your next superstar is probably in this volunteer team.”

Petrina Goh, business development manager at CWT Meetings & Events, likened managing volunteers to a saying from St. Francis of Assisi: “For it is in giving that we receive.”

“Having a strong two-way communication with your event volunteers is key. The more information and clarity you offer, the better the effort and result you will get from them,” she said. “Make sure your volunteers understand why they are there and give each of them their personal ‘return on objective’ target for the event.”

For example, volunteers may be keen to learn more about event technology or event production, and so placing them in a related role could help ensure they’re more enthusiastic and helpful during the event.

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