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February 5, 2014

How to Manage Volunteers at Your Event

Volunteers can be the backbone of a conference, helping to keep things running smoothly while simultaneously keeping costs low. But how can a conference planner get the best results out of people working for free? Event planner Adrian Segar arranges the annual edACCESS conference, which he says is managed almost entirely by volunteers. We touched base with him to get his insights on how he builds and maintains volunteer relationships for this and other large-scale conferences.

Segar shared a few of these insights a blog post several years back, starting with judging the marketability of the event by the number of people eager to be a part of it. “Can I find at least five people enthusiastic enough about the proposed combination of topic/theme, audience, location, and duration to volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen?” he wrote at the time.

Once the event is set and volunteers have come forward, Segar said it’s important to establish clear expectations early on in the preparation process—for both sides. “Often, you’ll have people volunteer for something specific, but sometimes people will just say, ‘how can I help?’” he told International Meetings Review. In this situation, he said, it is important to ask what skills the volunteer has, and why they want to be a part of this event. “You must investigate why they’re volunteering and what they can do that’s useful,” he said. “Sometimes, people volunteer and are a bad fit, though that’s rare.” Negotiations may be necessary, he added, but it’s important that volunteers not feel trapped doing something they don’t want to do. “You need to give volunteers something that works for them rather than taking advantage of them,” Segar said.

Rewarding volunteers for their efforts is also important—not just after the conference has wrapped, but from the beginning and all through the event. Perks can include meals and access to conference amenities, or, if they are attending the conference, they should get reduced or free admission. Beyond that, he told IMR, explicit perks make volunteers feel appreciated. “Before the event starts, I’ll take everyone out for lunch,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for people to get to know each other and go over any last minute things...and it gives them something to look forward to.” Meals, he added, are easy to arrange and a nice way to show appreciation.

Most importantly, Segar said, planners must never take their volunteers for granted. Contributions must be recognized both publicly and privately. “I like to bring them out briefly and introduce them individually,” he said. “Let them hear some applause. It doesn’t take lots of time, but they appreciate it...Also, privately, during an event, I’ll go around and thank volunteers personally whenever I see one. Maintaining relationships while the event is going on pays rich dividends.”

Inevitably, some regular volunteers will move on and no longer step up to help out. This is normal, Segar emphasized, and often is due to external factors. But, he added, it is important to find out why a repeat volunteer decides to stop volunteering. “What you don’t want is people stopping because you do a lousy job,” he said bluntly. “It’s crazy to throw away a resource, so be sure to appreciate and support the people who have the kindness to help out.” 

Read more of Segar's tips for working with volunteers here. 

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About the Author: Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox





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