Identifying a Volunteer’s Niche

Not every job is a perfect fit for every volunteer–which is simultaneously your biggest challenge and greatest advantage when building a volunteer team. 

Volunteering is volunteering is volunteering, right? No, of course not! Every job, duty, and responsibility is different, just like every person who volunteers is different. The trick is finding the right people for the job. When people are working in their sweet spot, they tend to work to their strengths, have a better experience, and stick around in the future. As a volunteer coordinator, that’s a win-win-win! 

 

Recruit

If you know you have jobs to fill that require a certain skill-set, start by actively recruiting people who would be the best fit. Will you need a medical tent at your festival? Reach out to the local medical school or nursing program to see if they can help connect you with volunteers. Want a group of cheerleaders to encourage runners over the finish line? Contact the local high school to help promote the opportunity to enthusiastic high schoolers or even the cheerleaders themselves in need of volunteer hours. Having a defined role and clear need will make it easier for you to know what type of person to pursue. 

 

Request

Sometimes a volunteer will have a talent, skill, or trait that is not immediately obvious. Maybe that mom who just wants to help the cause currently selling tickets used to be in a band and is great at local promotion. Or maybe the person providing you with pro-bono legal advice is a skilled photographer on the side. Regardless of the age or background of the volunteer, they probably have some sort of hidden talent, so ask them about it! Whether it’s a question you ask when you’re first introduced or it’s an open field on their volunteer registration form–ask volunteers what other skills or interests they might have. Sometimes you may be amazed to find it’s just what you’ve been looking for. You might not need everyone’s extra skills all at once though, so it’s nice to build a document that lists the variety of skills represented all in one place. That way, when the opportunity arises, you know who to call.

 

Reflect 

After the job has been fulfilled, be honest–was it the right fit? Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll have someone who feels their strength is in one area when it isn’t right for your team yet or maybe they were just in the wrong role all together. That doesn’t necessarily make them a bad volunteer–it might just mean pivoting to a different position in the future. Of course, you’re also going to have dirty or less glamorous jobs that need to be filled. Sometimes that means getting creative and sometimes that means divvying up the fun and not-so-fun jobs on a rotating basis. Assess what works best through surveys or follow-up meetings with volunteers when possible to let them share their thoughts as well. Maybe you thought they were a perfect fit in the kids craft tent, but they would rather have a break from kids and sell merch instead. Realizing that you will have to continue to hone in on where a volunteer fits best will help foster a healthy and strong team of volunteers committed to their roles. 

 

Now that you’ve got the plan for how to do it–go fill those jobs with the right volunteers! Both you and the volunteers will surely be happier for it. 

 

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Ten Myths About Managing Your Volunteers

Volunteer coordination is hard work, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what the role entails (and how to be successful along the way). We’re here today to de-bunk some of the most common myths we hear about volunteer management.

  1. You’re on call, 24-7. If you’re passionate about your job, managing volunteers could turn into an all-day, every-day gig. But with established communication protocols and an active team, you can (and should!) unplug. 
  2. You can’t solicit volunteers for donations. Many volunteers see their time as their primary contribution to an organization, but if there are costs associated with onboarding (background checks, etc.) asking them to cover those fees is a good path into the donor pipeline. 
  3. Volunteer trainings need to involve slides and manuals. Sure, you should cover compliance and protocols in an onboarding, but bring the mission to life with role-playing, behind-the-scenes tours or other activities that engage and inspire volunteers. 
  4. You should be happy with whoever you get. That old “beggars can’t be choosers” philosophy could really disrupt your organization. Screening volunteers is critical. They should be a right match for the organization, and placed in a role that maximizes their skills.  
  5. There’s no professional development for volunteer managers. So many people fall into this line of work. Seek out a support system of other volunteer managers who can share best practices through your local United Way, nonprofit professionals network or online forums. They can also recommend conferences and webinars to grow your skills. 
  6. Volunteer programs are free. While a volunteer program can bring great value to your organization, they’re like a garden that needs attention and investment to yield the best results. Don’t forget to build recognition materials, management software and other supplies into your budget. 
  7. Your organization should jump on every Day of Service opportunity or group volunteer request. Saying ‘no’ to someone (or lots of someones) who want to contribute to your organization can seem crazy. But if the activity is out of scope for your organization, a ‘yes’ can lead to confusion and cause more harm than good. 
  8. You’re the only one recruiting volunteers for your cause. Partnerships – with corporations, colleges and universities and other civic organizations – can create productive volunteer pipelines. 
  9. Liability and insurance isn’t your territory. Make sure you are working closely with your organizations’ compliance arm to ensure both volunteers and the organization are not putting each other at risk. 
  10. Measuring volunteer impact is impossible. With proper tracking of volunteer hours and assignments, your organization can put a relative dollar value on volunteer power. And by collecting stories of volunteer initiatives and outcomes, your leveraging powerful anecdotes to support your cause.

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It’s a Family Affair! Fill Your Shifts with Families

As a volunteer coordinator, you are more than acquainted with the struggle to get volunteers to your event. A great way to get more people is including positions that work well for families. It is a great activity for them to spend time together while giving back to the community. How can you get families to your events? We have a few tips that we think might help.

What positions are appropriate for teenagers? 

Most events will have teen-appropriate jobs. Green team volunteers, set-up or tear-down, ticketing or even working with children. It’s a bonus if the job is one that can help them practice skills to benefit them in their professional development, like money-handling or on-site logistics. Jobs that require working with attendees (or greeting them as they enter) will give teens important communication and interpersonal skills.

 

Some families will want to spend the day together, are there positions like that?

Any position that has multiple spots within a shift could be a good choice for families to work together. Check-in is a great spot for families like this, they can have time to chat and parents can teach their kids some new skills. While it is tempting to fill the oft-understaffed clean up or tear down crews with families, remember that parents (and especially grandparents) may not be able to lift and carry as much as their children. You can always create sub-responsibilities within these roles that are age-appropriate for everyone in the family. (Bonus for you, those parents can keep the kids in line!) 

 

What events are family friendly? 

Almost any event can be family friendly – yes, even the local folk festival that serves alcohol. If you are just starting out the go to events would be charity races, information booths, neighborhood events, decorating, visiting nursing homes, park clean ups are all great examples. But don’t feel limited, if you are coordinating volunteers for an event you can make it family-friendly. 

 

What positions let me and my family work together? 

Working together is a great way to spend family time together. Volunteering for an event where you build something is a great way to work together, but even working shift at a charity race to pass out water can be a bonding experience. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or food bank is a good way for families to give back to other families that are not as fortunate. 

 

What about little-little ones, are they able join the family fun?

Certain sites aren’t the best place to have kids under the age of about 7 or 8, but don’t despair, as the volunteer coordinator you can create positions that are necessary for the function of your event and sounds like you need a few volunteers to help with daycare. 

 

What if the event really isn’t  family friendly?

Not all events fit the family mold. Maybe the majority of your volunteers need to check IDs or serve a glass of wine or beer. Can’t really have a high schooler handling that job. Depending on the laws in your state there could still roles for older kids, like wiping down table and cleaning up. But if there isn’t something you can do to make it fun for the whole family – it could be a great date night! Maybe the parents need a Saturday night and they can spend it volunteering for their favorite charity. 

 

For almost any kind of event you can make sure you have roles for a range of ages and multiple people in each shift. Those a the two easiest ways to accommodate families of any size. If you don’t have an event that lends its self to a family affair you can get creative with having a child watch area or make it a couples or best friend day out experience! 

 

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De-Briefing After Your Event

Finally – that event you worked so hard on is over. It finally feels like it’s time to throw on some slippers, grab a bag of chips and wind down with a glass of wine.

But not so fast.

While you should definitely give yourself a pat on the back, the period after an event can give you an opportunity to debrief both for yourself and your volunteer crew while the event is still fresh in your minds.

A de-briefing session can check on what worked and what didn’t for both you and your volunteers. It’s a positive opportunity to put a variety of minds together for a brainstorming sit-down. It can give you a chance to address concerns, highlight strengths and soak in feedback to better future events. And even if you feel like an event went successfully, you will want to check in with your team and volunteers to make sure you’re all on the same page.

Set aside time, have an agenda and get ready to review your goals both for yourself and your team.

 

Questions to ask yourself and your volunteers:

  • Get bigger and better

What are things that can be done to make the next event an even bigger success? Think about both the physical planning of the event and the analyzation of your attendee engagement. Could registration go more smoothly? Do you need more parking? Likewise, is there a way to get more attendees to your event? How was your social media language?

  • The good, the bad and the ugly

Take steps to congratulate yourself, acknowledge what could be improved upon and what needs to be thrown to the wayside. Acknowledge yourself and your volunteers for a job well done, but also discuss what didn’t work and how it can change. 

  • Listen and learn

What kind of feedback did the attendees provide – both explicitly and not explicitly? Brainstorm ways to get attendees to provide direct feedback, but also discuss what was observed. Did people struggle finding things? Was one activity particularly popular?

  • Let’s take action

Create a priority list and determine what actions can and should be done. Making a plan of action sets the tone for both yourself and your volunteers that the feedback they provide will be considered and utilized to make future events even better.

 

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Recruiting Volunteers for a Charity Race

Every event needs volunteers and as a coordinator one of your main priorities is recruiting passionate people to help the event run smoothly. There are people who volunteer for an event because they like the activity, the cause, or they got roped into it by a friend. It is good to take any help you can get, but the greatest volunteers are those that have an interest or a passion for the event. For charity races that core group comes from volunteers that are motivated by the cause. Here are some do’s and don’ts when finding and recruiting those volunteers. 

 

Do: 

  • Advertise the cause benefiting from the race. Communication is key make sure the cause the race is benefiting is clear. 

 

  • Include the cause in the name. That tells you right away that the race is for something more than just physical fitness (though, that is a great cause for a race too). Everyone loves something clever if you can manage to come up with a good play on words. 

 

  • Provide education about the disease or cause the race is supporting. The ice bucket challenge got people googling ALS to know what that crazy social media challenge was about. Maybe your race won’t get people googling, but you can provide more education about your cause to spread knowledge.

 

  • Reach out to affiliated groups. If your race benefits a high school band, reach out to the parents. If it’s a disease talk to hospitals or support groups. 

 

  • Make it clear where the funds raised will go. It’s not just enough to say it’s for a cause, show what the benefit will be. 

 

 

 

Don’t: 

  • Require volunteers to have been affected by the disease. Allies are important members of every community. 

 

  • Mislead participants about the purpose of the race. If you advertise a benefit race make sure the cause is front and center and not an afterthought. 

 

  • Assume people will know the cause you are supporting. If you name your race something vague or don’t find a way to include the cause in the name no one will know the cause unless its advertised.

 

  • Ignore social media. That goes for traditional advertising too. You want to reach out to everyone possible, don’t count on affiliate groups to encompass everyone who might support the cause.

 

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What Motivates the 300-Hour Volunteer?

It’s exciting when you witness someone discover their passion through volunteering. Kathy Kelley started volunteering a decade ago at the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700 acre outdoor living museum in suburban Chicago. Through the years, her identity and pride as an Arboretum volunteer has grown tremendously. So, what made volunteering there take root? 

We sat down with her to learn more about her incredible volunteer experience and what keeps her coming back, year after year.

 

What inspired you to start volunteering at the Morton Arboretum?
Kathy: This is my 10th year volunteering at the Arboretum. One of my good friends was volunteering one weekend at a big fall festival and I got hooked on it. Now, the process of becoming a volunteer is much different; you apply and have an interview. The Arb has 1,592 volunteers in all capacities. They have people who work every week taking out invasive species. They have people who help with mailings. They have all ages. You find your niche. My first year, I did 3 hours and 30 minutes. The second year I had 27 hours. This year, I will have over 300 volunteer hours.

 

Do you get any perks as a volunteer?
Kathy: You’re considered an active volunteer if you volunteer 40 hours or more a year. You get 20 percent off at the store and free admission for two people for the year. Every quarter you can get 20 percent off a class and every year they have a big volunteer appreciation dinner. You get a voucher for a free drink every time you volunteer for a coffee or soft drink. They provide special volunteer parking and entrances. They’re always saying ‘Thank You.’ Even when you’re driving out, there’s a sign that says “Thank You Volunteers.” 

 

What’s your relationship with the volunteer coordinators like?
Kathy: They’re wonderful. There’s two people – Kristin and Lucy – and they’re very appreciative. They’re very accommodating. I always bring them a box of candy at Christmas, just because when you’re working with 1,500 volunteers you get some crankypants. You log-in and post your hours on their volunteer portal, but it’s interesting because I work now a lot with special events, so they’ll text me and ask if I want to work certain things. 

 

What motivates you to volunteer so much?
Kathy: It’s my happy place. I love walking there every week, and their mission. As my professional and caregiving responsibilities lessened, I have had more time to give. [The Arboretum] is where I have chosen to spend my extra time. It’s a beautiful place, it’s a calming place. It’s also less than a mile from my house, but I know people who drive in from all over. It’s social. Some people you’ll work with just once, but others you get to see regularly and know. There’s also pride in ownership, when I take on tasks, like overseeing 5K shirts. It’s a self-motivation. I always try to see if I get a few more hours. I like working special events. I like being able to be part of the experience. 

 

Why is volunteering important in your life?
Kathy: I’ve always been a volunteer. It was instilled in us when we were little. It’s the way we were brought up. I don’t have a lot of the financial means to support something, although the Arboretum is where I have donated, but I have always thought it’s just a way of supporting an organization you believe in.

 

 

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Cutting the Paperwork

By the time you’ve printed out schedules, one sheets and waivers for your event, it can feel like you’ve decimated a small forest.

So, what can you do to digitize your event and cut back on your paper? We’ve rounded up some of our top ways to bring your event into the electronic age and minimize the amount of times you have to pick up all the papers one of the volunteers just knocked on the ground.

 

Waivers

They’re a necessary evil, but at least they don’t have to be the physical embodiment of one. Throw those waivers online and not only do you make it simple for volunteers to fill out before even getting to your event, you have an online database of every waiver you’ve received. Emailing is simple enough, though we’re partial to a folder on your desktop with all the signed waivers and an excel document checking off which volunteer has sent theirs in. But that’s just us! You do you.

 

Sign Up

This one’s a no brainer. There’s no need to have volunteers calling you, signing up on sheets, etc. Just get that puppy online! Simple, easy, and on the internet, which means it will live forever and you can never forget who signed up for the next shift.

 

Tutorials

Gone are the days of the one-sheets that explain everything you need to do. Instead of a typed up document telling volunteers how to do a job, why don’t you show them? Quick video tutorials are easy to shoot on a cell phone and can be emailed, uploaded to your event’s Facebook group or even just texted to the people who need to see them.

 

So there you have it, team. Save yourself some time printing and lugging papers all over and digitize what you can.

 

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Defining Accountability for Your Volunteers: Five Things to do Upfront

“What were they thinking?!”

 

If you’ve ever thought this at the end of a volunteer’s job, you know things can get ridiculous when volunteers decide to go rogue. If you think back though, maybe they didn’t have a clear understanding of their expectations or some accountability to back that up. So, what can you do to avoid more “what the heck?” moments in the future? 

 

Like many things, it starts with clear communication. This communication may be in an email, in a meeting, over the phone, or face-to-face, but know that it has to happen. Volunteers need way more than “welcome to the team,” so this is the perfect opportunity to lay out some expectations and opportunity for accountability. This will not only give them the direction they need to get started, but also will give you more peace of mind and a greater confidence in your volunteers. 

 

Top five things to define with volunteers as their volunteer coordinator: 

 

Role

When a volunteer first starts, let them know what they will be doing. Will they hand out t-shirts or be responsible for the entire check-in table? Will they be in charge of the design concepts or will they merely be using assets already created to make a flyer? Let them know what they are responsible for so they can fulfill their duties. Ask if they have questions, and then ask them to tell you their plans to carry out their mission. Having a discussion or some form of response will give you both an indicator of whether or not you are on the same page.  

 

Goal/Impact

Although it may sound redundant to you, communicate the goals and impact of what they will be doing and the goals and impact of the event overall. Maybe they know their role, but they don’t understand the big picture. Realizing how their part impacts other volunteers, the organization, and even the community will create a sense of ownership and accountability for the volunteer. That way, they know that if they back out last minute or miss a deadline, several people will be negatively impacted. 

 

Timeline

While you’ve got spreadsheets and lists and everything you might need as the volunteer coordinator, sometimes you forget to tell the volunteer what their timeline is. Add in a bit of buffer time, but then tell the volunteer when something is due. For instance, if someone is working on a newsletter for you, let them know when the first draft is due, when you need the revisions back, and when you want to send it—not just the final date you want to send it by. Or, if they are working a shift at an event, let them know when they’ll be done. No volunteer likes to stand around waiting to see if you or someone else will return to let them know if/when they can go home. Without a clear idea of start and end dates, volunteers may bail on you. 

 

Supervisor

Tell volunteers who they should first report to, especially if it isn’t you. Explain the role of the supervisor or person above them and then provide contact information for them. Volunteers need to know who to go to if they have questions or problems, but supervisors also need to be given the introduction in order to show authority when needed. 

 

Checkpoints

If you have a long project or even a long shift, make it clear what your checkpoints will be throughout the process. That way volunteers know you will be available for questions and you continue to communicate the vision of their role throughout its duration. After the duties have been completed, be sure to follow up for feedback in a survey or meeting to provide accountability for both you and the volunteer. 

 

Defining everything volunteers need to know ahead of time means you have to be organized, and you have to communicate. That means you can’t be running around doing everything last minute yourself. Instead, you’ll need to be focusing your attention on empowering your volunteers. In the end, it’s worth it when volunteers not only complete their tasks but do so with a clear understanding of their goals and expectations—minus the frustration or miscommunication. 

 

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Quick Tips to Cover Your Bases When Planning an Event

 

Have you ever had an event go 100% according to plan? We wish it weren’t true, but we’re guessing your answer is probably no.

 

While it’s impossible to plan for every single thing that could go wrong, making sure you have adequate backup plans in place can help minimize the stress on the actual day of the event — especially if something does go awry. Here is a list of 5 quick tips to help you prepare and make sure you have those bases covered! 

 

Standby Volunteers 

People get sick and things come up. Have a specific sign-up for “standby” volunteers. Make sure to let them know that if they haven’t heard by a certain time the day of the event, they can assume they’re not needed and can get on with their original plans. 

 

Weather Plan

If you’re organizing an outdoor event, make sure you plan for mother nature. Do you have tents or shelter that can be utilized so the event can stay outside, or do you need an indoor space as a backup? Or can you set a “rain date?” There are a number of options, just make sure to have chosen one beforehand! 

 

First Aid 

Regardless of your event, make sure to have a first aid kit ready in case someone gets hurt. In general, check out the space (indoor or outdoor) and correct any potential safety hazards. For example, if you’re organizing a volunteer race, don’t choose roads with lots of potholes. 

 

Prepare Your Volunteers & Attendees 

Communicate helpful tips to volunteers and attendees. For example, if your volunteer race is on a trail that may have uneven surfaces, let them know. If you’re doing an activity that would be best with closed-toe shoes, make it required. 

 

The Right Volunteers 

Think carefully through the types of jobs you’ll need volunteers for leading up to and during the event. Then make specific roles for volunteers instead of just having everyone sign-up for a general “volunteer” position. Giving volunteers autonomy will be motivating to them, and will also ensure you’re utilizing their skills for the right thing. 

 

No event will ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for the best possible experience for both your volunteers and your attendees! We hope this list helps your planning and we’ll cross our fingers that you’ll never actually need to use any of these tips. 🙂 Happy planning! 

 

 

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An Interview with Lisa Barnes, of Summer of the Arts

It’s July, and summer is officially in full gear! Across the Midwest, that means picnics, road trips, and short nights. For Iowa locals, that means Iowa City Summer of the Arts. We couldn’t think of a better time to reach out to Lisa Barnes, the Executive Director, to hear more about her organization.

 

Since 2005, Summer of the Arts has created an incredible summer of entertainment, right in the heart of Iowa City, IA. Events include family-friendly festivals and weekly events like the Friday Night Concert Series and the outdoor Free Movie Series (bring lawn chairs!) As an Iowa City local myself, this organization has made summers come alive in a truly special way. 

 

How did Summer of the Arts get started originally? Is there a mission or vision that has guided you as the organization grows? 

Summer of the Arts was formed in the fall of 2005 as a way to bring together three long-running events (Iowa Arts Festival, Iowa City Jazz Festival and Friday Night Concert Series), and to share resources including fundraising, marketing, operations, etc. In 2005, there was a pilot program for the Free Movie Series, which became the 4th event added to the organization.

 

Our mission is to build community by bringing people together in the heart of Iowa City to experience, learn about, and enjoy free arts and cultural programs.

 

How have the events and festivals changed over the years?  

Over the years we have produced additional events (Downtown Saturday Night/Saturday Night Concert Series, Sand in the City, MusicIC, Celebrate the Season, Landlocked Film Festival), and in 2013 we started producing the Iowa Soul Festival, which is now the Soul & Blues Festival.

 

With the four core events, each year we review the event and discuss ways to change or improve the event. A lot of this comes down to layout and programming and what our community wants to see. We are constantly striving to bring changes and something new to each event, while maintaining the quality people have come to expect.

 

Do you know how many people usually attend these festivals? Which festivals seem to be the most popular? 

Since we don’t have tickets or primary entrances, it’s impossible for us to accurately estimate how many people attend each event, but based on what we’ve seen, we estimate a total of 100,000 people throughout the course of the summer. 

It’s hard to guess which event is the most popular as they all have their own niche – jazz fans LOVE the Jazz Festival, movie fans enjoy the Free Movie Series, general community members who enjoy live music love to get together and dance and experience the Friday Night Concert Series, families and all backgrounds enjoy the diversity of things to do at the Iowa Arts Festival and our diverse community embraces the passion of the Soul & Blues Festival.

 

How many volunteers do you usually have for an event and how are they involved? 

The only event we produce which doesn’t have volunteers is the Friday Night Concert Series. For the Free Movie Series, we typically have around 5 volunteers who are needed to help set up our inflatable screen. For the Arts, Jazz and Soul & Blues Festivals, we have anywhere from 25-250 volunteers who help in a variety of areas like setup/teardown, staffing hydration stations, bike parking, merchandise booth, beverage garden, Eco Stations, etc. We also have our year round volunteers who serve on our board of directors and the various festival committees.

 

Are there any festivals or performers that you’ve been particularly excited about this

summer?  

For me personally, each festival brings something fun and different. I am very excited about Friday night at the Jazz Festival with The Nayo Jones Experience (vocalist) and Jane Bunnett and Maqueque (all female band with a Latin flair).

 

Thank you, Lisa! For more information about the Summer of the Arts, please visit https://summerofthearts.org .

 

 

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