Recruiting and Managing a Diverse, High-Performance Volunteer Team
Trading attendance at your event for volunteer work can be a huge win-win for all—if you do it right
“Come quick—your volunteer is drunk and screaming.”
The text came in around 8 p.m. It was the end of a long day with only a few volunteers left on-site … what could go wrong at this point?
As a veteran volunteer manager, I know that no matter what kind of screening process you use, there will always be a dud or two in your volunteer team. But usually that means a volunteer who doesn’t smile while helping with reception, not a volunteer who is sloppy drunk and yelling.
A staff member had asked one of my volunteers—not knowing that he had been helping himself to the free champagne—to please let attendees at the reception know to make their way into the main auditorium for the evening talks. He cheerfully agreed, then turned around, took a deep breath and slur-screamed “THE TALKS ARE STARTING!” at the top of his liquor-soaked lungs. I almost hauled him off by his ear, grandma-style.
Not every volunteer management issue can be anticipated and avoided, but many can, and those are the ones I’ll be discussing in this article. Including your volunteer drink policy…
Talk to some people who’ve managed volunteers for an event and you’ll hear similar complaints — failure to meet diversity recruiting goals, volunteers who don’t show up (a 50% no-show rate is pretty common), volunteers who show up but wander off during their shift, and volunteers whose interactions with attendees and staff are the source of complaints.
Talk to volunteers and you’ll hear a different set of complaints — lack of communication, lack of organization, people treating them like incompetent second-class citizens and, for those from marginalized populations, being tokenized for the sake of “diversity.”
I have been managing volunteers in one way or another since middle school, at sporting events, music events, activism events, protests, and conferences. Nowadays I speak and write full time, but once a year, I recruit and manage a diverse, 120-member volunteer team for the Lean Startup Conference.
I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve also made many of the mistakes I’m about to teach you not to do. I’m writing this so that you have a head start on doing better than I did in those cases.
There are two inescapable tenets you need to account for when it comes to event volunteers:
- Most events can’t run smoothly without them.
- Volunteers can basically wander off whenever they want without serious consequences.
If you’re in a position of recruiting volunteers, then you’ve been put in charge of a group of people who usually have less privilege and are more vulnerable to mistreatment than others working at or attending the event. If your attitude is “I’m doing these volunteers a favor, and they should act like it,” then nothing I write here will help you to be a successful volunteer manager. But if you take responsibility for advocating for your volunteers to have an excellent experience (which will, in turn, help make sure that they will provide an excellent experience to attendees), then read on.
Recruiting a Diverse Team
The reason to create a diverse team isn’t just to check some (imaginary and condescending) “diversity” box. It’s because involving people from many different backgrounds and experiences in an event makes the event better — it brings more perspectives and points of view.
As a volunteer manager, you are in a position to reach out to groups who are underserved and under-represented (people of color, women, LGBTQIA people, disabled people/people with disabilities, immigrants, veterans, and religious minorities, et al.) and offer the opportunity to be involved — often without ticket cost as a barrier, since volunteers typically receive entry to the event for free.
Trading conference attendance for volunteer work is significant. Marginalized groups often face challenges when it comes to income, so this policy makes it possible for them to attend the conference at all. Even if they can afford the financial cost, they may reasonably feel reluctant to pay a high ticket price just to spend the day feeling excluded at best or, at worst, awash in a sea of microaggressions.
It’s not just about inviting a diverse group — many people from marginalized groups have had enough of being invited to events to “create diversity” through their presence. We must start by making sure that our events are actually welcoming to diverse and, especially, marginalized people. That means things like a code of conduct that specifically covers issues like racism and sexual harassment, gender-neutral bathrooms to make sure that trans and non-binary people are welcome, nursing suites so that parents can attend, seating that accommodates people of all sizes, an event that is disabled accessible (with the understanding that “ADA compliant” is a below-bare-minimum standard that leaves far too many people out), and conference staff and speakers who are also from diverse communities — ideally everyone who comes to the conference will be able to see their identities reflected in paid staff and from the stage.
As the volunteer manager, we may not have the ability to make all of these things happen, but we have an obligation to work with the conference staff/leadership who oversee areas of inclusion and accessibility. You may have to help educate them about why these factors are important, advocate to make them happen, and help with the work to get them done not just for volunteers, but for all conference attendees.
After you work with event leadership to make sure that you are creating an event that is intentionally welcoming and inclusive, it’s time to do your recruiting research.
Finding your volunteers
I start by generating a list of area colleges, universities, and technical and trade schools. Then I hit their websites, painstakingly finding the contact information for student clubs that serve populations that are typically marginalized and underserved, as well as the disability office, multicultural offices, women’s centers, veterans’ services, and LGBTQIA centers.
I also look for contact information for instructors who teach classes that are related to the conference topics, student organizations that are dedicated to conference topics, student career counseling centers, and student job placement services. In short, anyone who has regular contact with students who may benefit from the volunteer opportunity, with a focus on those that serve groups that are underserved and under-represented.
Then I move on to create a list of community organizations. A good place to start is with chambers of commerce (a few common examples are African American/Black, Hispanic, Asian, Women’s, and LGBTQIA chambers), as well as organizations that focus on these groups. I also search for small business networking groups, veterans organizations, religious minority business organizations, and “young entrepreneur” groups.
Here’s a sample recruiting e-mail:
Subject Line: [Student OR Community] Volunteer Opportunities — [Event Name]
I’m the Volunteer Manager for [Event Name] in [location] on [dates]. We have opportunities for [students or community members] to volunteer and earn free registration to the [event], which [insert value prop of event.]
If you think this would be of interest to your [students/organization/community], I would really appreciate it if you could forward it along. Here are the details:
In exchange for volunteering for [volunteer time requirement], you will receive:
[Bulleted list of what volunteers will receive]
Those who are interested can fill out this quick form to get the ball rolling:
[Insert link Interest Form, which gathers personal and contact info and includes the information about the time requirement and list of benefits so that it can be used as a recruiting tool]
Recruiting for High Performance
Throughout the process, you want to consistently use language that reinforces the fact that people are joining a high-performance team and that they are an important part of the event. It’s entirely possible that those applying have been part of volunteer teams that had…let’s just say “lower expectations.” You want to clarify your expectations through your communication.
Be direct about how much time will be expected of them, what they will be doing, and what they will receive.
To help set those expectations, you’ll need to first get specifics from all event staff about the volunteer skills they need and want. To do this, I create a Google Sheet with columns for requester name and contact info, number of volunteers requested, start time, end time, description of duties, who they will report to, that person’s contact info, and any special notes.
When the requests come in, don’t be afraid to push back or ask for clarification. Saying “yes” to something that you know won’t work doesn’t help anyone, so if a request is unrealistic or inappropriate, speak up. Your volunteers are counting on you for this.
I recommend the complete process below to select volunteers who are serious about the experience.
If you don’t go this route, then you’ll want to recruit at least twice as many volunteers as you need — a 50% no-show rate is pretty common, and volunteers who do show up may not be particularly engaged.
Even if you do all of this, you’ll need to recruit extra volunteers. But this process helps optimize for the ones who will actually show up and be engaged.
I try to have at least two extra volunteers for each shift, just in case.
Collecting Information from Recruits
Interests and basic info
Collect basic contact information, their LinkedIn profile or resume, and why they want to volunteer.
An open-ended question will help you decide a good match for the volunteer to their duties, and the time they spend on that question — or don’t — will give you insight into their level of engagement.
Skills and availability
Get details about their availability during the event, general skills and work preferences that relate to your event needs, T-shirt size, and any other information specific to your event.
Ask if there are any accommodations required around disability, food (allergies, vegetarian, vegan etc.), or anything else.
Volunteers coming from outside the country will need to start the visa process as soon as possible, as it can take some time, and you may need to help. You can get information about the visa process here.
Volunteer Logistics and Training
Taking care of your volunteers begins with the first contact and lasts through event follow-up. In many cases, you’ll start the cycle again the following year, so these can be lasting relationships.
Be prompt and clear in communications — don’t let e-mails from volunteers languish in your inbox.
Avoid using idioms and colloquialisms that may make things difficult for volunteers for whom English is not their first language.
There are a few things you’ll need to prepare for before the event.
Ensure respectful treatment
Treat volunteers like any other respected team member. Do whatever you can to make sure that everyone else does the same. If leadership does a pre-conference meeting, ask if you can give a quick presentation about volunteers and use that time to stress that volunteers be treated with respect.
All. The. Perks.
Give your volunteers as much as you can — free entry to the event when they aren’t volunteering, all the “backstage” access you can arrange, meet and greets with speakers, entry to receptions and any other conference-related activities, swag, and food.
Food and hydration
Providing quality food is a way to show that you care about your volunteers. It’s important, even if your event doesn’t offer free food.
Offer as many free meals as you can, but at minimum keep snacks in the volunteer room all the time. Supply a wide variety of foods, as much as you can afford. Make sure to include good and varied options for those with special food needs. Plan ahead for this—I’ll talk more about the volunteer room and check-in below.
I do this online, typically live with Q&A, on a platform like Zoom. I record it and then put it up on YouTube so that those who didn’t make it can watch it later.
Prior to the training, I send volunteers the login information, as well as a link to a form they need to complete after the training.
During this training I:
- Welcome, and profusely and sincerely thank the volunteers.
- Reiterate that they are joining a high-performance team.
- Set expectations. (For example, “We expect you to enthusiastically do what needs to be done during your shift, and then thoroughly enjoy the rest of the event.”)
- Give logistical information.
- Go over the general job descriptions.
- Go over the code of conduct and what to do if someone reports a violation to them.
- Remind them not to drink while on duty and/or while wearing their volunteer T-shirts.
- Thank them again.
There’s one more thing I do during this training: In intro, I explain that I’ll be saying three keywords at random times during the training, and that afterward they’ll need to complete the form that asks multiple choice questions about the training—and they’ll need to give me the three keywords.
During the training, I’ll say something like “Your second keyword is …” and repeat the keyword twice.
After the training, the volunteers have to complete the form. Occasionally someone will get a question or keyword wrong, at that point I let them know that they got a question wrong and they need to re-do the training.
I recommend creating shift times that overlap so that you have time to do any on-site training and then do a handoff of duties.
When assigning duties, think about implicit biases. For example, we can tend to give the jobs with the most prestige/responsibility to white men, or give care-taking responsibilities to women—you need to resist that kind of bias.
As soon as you create your schedule, e-mail the volunteer schedule and require volunteers to reply with the commitment to be there on time for their shift.
Remember: You will lose people after each stage — that’ s exactly how it’s supposed to work. Volunteers who make it through all four steps are much more likely to show up for their shift and be engaged while they are there.
At this point you may be thinking “Wow, this sounds like a lot of e-mails,” and you’re right. I recommend doing your best to be charming, interesting, concise, and, if you can manage it, funny to soften the blow—but doing all this pre-conference communication is a way to weed out people who aren’t going to be dedicated. They’ll tend to drop out early rather than just not show at the event.
At the Conference
I always tell volunteers go directly to the volunteer room and get their name badges from me there, rather than going to official registration. That way I get to connect with them first thing.
I ask for LinkedIn profiles on the interest form. I use those to get pictures of the volunteers, and I create a study sheet so that I can, hopefully, identify volunteer by face and name as they walk in. I use sites like NameShouts to help make sure that I’m correctly pronouncing people’s names, and I ask if I’m not sure.
At the beginning of each shift, I leave 30 minutes for pre-shift training. I thank them again, sincerely and profusely. I go back over the Code of Conduct, then I go over each of the descriptions of the duties they’ll be covering during their shift.
Some volunteer positions will have special required tasks that I explain as needed. That may include texting me a count of the number of attendees in the room they are monitoring, or texting me when they locate the conference staff member they will be assisting.
There is nothing more frustrating to a volunteer than being asked questions and not having an answer, so when they leave pre-shift training, they have a piece of paper with their shift assignment details, my contact information, the conference schedule and a map, and the URL for a private website that I create that has all the information they might need.
I take questions, thank them again, and send them out to have an amazing experience.
During the shift
While they are on shift, I am surrounded by communications devices, answering questions as they come in my text, phone, e-mail, and multiple Slack channels.
I keep one to two volunteers in the volunteer room at all times to deal with any emergencies that come up. Depending on the shift length, and health conditions, volunteers may need to eat while on shift. I typically allow them to take care of this and other human needs (bathroom, etc.) at their own discretion.
I also typically don’t require volunteers to check out with me. I find that after all of the e-mails and forms and micromanaging, a little trust goes a long way.
Post-shift and beyond
As soon as their shift ends, I e-mail volunteers thanking them, and include a link to an anonymous survey where they can give their feedback about the experience, as well as suggestions they have for how I, and the experience, can be improved.
I also remind them that they are welcome to use the volunteer room for the rest of the event.
I also offer to help them with anything they need post-conference. This has included everything from helping them get extra credit from professors to writing a LinkedIn recommendation to being a job reference.
So, to sum it all up: Work to create an event that is intentionally welcoming to diverse attendees, commit to your role as an advocate for your volunteers, be organized, over-communicate, and have fun!