How to Effectively Leverage Your Volunteers

16 December 2015

‘Tis the season when most of us give back to our communities and volunteer our time to a cause we care about. But what makes us feel compelled to volunteer? There may be many factors; however it is always for a purpose. It could be a personal connection with the project or contributing to something you are passionate about. In the end we all have different reasons for being involved.

Most organizations that hold conferences, meetings, events and shows are unable to plan and execute a successful event without the help of volunteers throughout the process. Managing volunteers is not always the easiest of responsibilities that fall under your duties. Instead of being negative about issues that arise with volunteer management I am going to focus on the aspects that make a positive experience for everyone…well, because ‘tis the season. This focus is going to be about on-site volunteers, keeping in mind the end result should be focused on enhancing your attendee’s experience.


Reach out to more than just your board or committee members who already give their time to your organization on a regular basis. Write descriptions on whom you are looking for and what they will be assisting with. Pass the information in your newsletter, website, social media, and ask those you trust or current volunteers if they know of anyone who would be a good candidate. You will be pleasantly surprised at the outcome and response from your greater base when you proactively manage your outreach. Contact local chapters and associates living nearby the conference city as another resource. There may be a university or college close to your conference and students interested in the hospitality field can be good candidates and fit for certain tasks.

Plan early and ahead with recruiting and provide job descriptions to match up your volunteers with their background and what they are likely to be comfortable and willing to help with. When you are planning for volunteers make sure to ask for more quantities of people than what is necessary. Inevitably schedules will change and some will not be able to help. This way you are not “left out in the cold” without enough support to execute the tasks. Assign a strong and inspiring staff or board member as the liaison to lead the volunteer’s during the entire process.

Be Prepared

How often have we heard this in our careers? We need to prepare for the unknown, what we do know, and anticipate what we will need. So when thinking about our volunteers it’s critical to communicate with them to ensure they are prepared. Here is some of the key information to cover when working with volunteers.

Create a thorough job description including an overview of the conference
Provide the description and overview as soon as a volunteer signs up
Provide an internal agenda including shift times and assignments
Conference contingency plans for emergencies
Share contact information of volunteers and key staff members and titles, including who they should contact if a question or situation should arise
Conduct a pre-conference call to review agenda and locations so everyone is on the same page and has a chance to ask any questions

Value your Volunteers

Treat and make your volunteers feel like they are an extension of your staff. Be sure to allow for break times, a break area and (I know this one sounds silly) provide them with food/meals. Check in with them from time to time during the event. Consider the cost if you did not have volunteers and needed to hire temporary staff. Temp staff can take a hit on a conference budget. You can budget significant amount less utilizing volunteers and by leverage concessions to eliminate your volunteer expenses. Look into free or discounted parking, discounted registration fees, lowered room rates, etc. Regardless if you are or are not able to assist them with out of pocket expenses be extremely clear and communicate what will and will not be provided.

Recognize and Reward

There’s many ways to recognize your volunteers. Here are some simple ways you can recognize them; general session; in the official program, badge ribbons, newsletters, and personally by the head of your organization. In addition to the above suggestions I like to have personal thank you notes semi-prepared in advance sent out electronically immediately following the event once I add individual details. I also prepare a draft personalized thank you note from the head of the organization that is sent via the post office, including their impact of their assistance at the conference.

Volunteers are a Vital Resource

When it comes time to conduct your post event report (PER) be sure to evaluate the training and materials that were provided to the volunteers from both their performance and user standpoint. Look at the overall impact of their performance and offer them chance to provide suggestions and feedback to put into practice in future events.

Remember volunteerism is a two way street. Be authentic, appreciate your resources, and have fun.

Warm wishes for a great and successful conference season!

Posted by Christina Buck, CMP