Tip: Simple inexpensive effective appreciation of your volunteers

HHMI appreciation posterHere’s a great low-cost way to provide powerful personal feedback in permanent form to meeting volunteers and staff that complements giving them public appreciations during the event. Event planning committee members and I were the delighted recipients during a recent national peer conference for medical research lab managers.

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The new patron economy and its impact on events-Part 2

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I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time that is similar in some ways to an era in our past—a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.
—from Part 1 of this post

We are returning to a patron economy
In Part 1 of this post I explained why I believe we are returning to a patron economy.

Luckily, there are a lot more patrons now than there were when Mozart and Beethoven eked out a living via the largesse of nobility and the wealthy. These days, when you tip generously in a restaurant, donate to worthy causes, or volunteer, you are a patron in the patron economy. Once our core needs have been satisfied, our desires to create and share remain, and these desires, decoupled from financial reward, are now easier for many to fulfill than they’ve ever been.

How will this future affect the world of events? Events have always relied to some degree on the contributions of volunteers: family members at a wedding, conference advisory board members, and student interns, to name a few. As emphasis shifts from content to connection at face-to-face events, the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers become increasingly important, as even a few true fans can make a dramatic difference to an event.

The new event patrons
I’m writing this just after attending a four-day, 500-attendee association conference where key participatory sessions were facilitated or led by twenty enthusiastic volunteers.

Hiring professional facilitators to lead these sessions would have been very expensive. The volunteers received branded fleece jackets, a reduced event fee, and public acknowledgment of their contributions. No extra lodging or travel expenses had to be paid because the volunteers were already attending the conference.

In addition, hiring professional facilitators to lead sessions would have been a far less satisfactory experience for attendees because outside facilitators would not have had the substantial subject matter expertise and experience that the volunteers possessed. I sat in on some of the sessions, and an outside facilitator would simply not have been able to understand, let alone guide, the discussions because of the considerable professional knowledge taken for granted as the basis for discussion by the participants.

Volunteers are the new patrons
When I think back, I realize that none of the conferences I’ve organized over the last twenty years would have been possible without the significant contributions of volunteers. Think about the events you’ve organized—how true is this for you? As we move towards more participative and participant-driven sessions at events, the role of volunteers is going to become increasingly important. Your volunteers are your new patrons—ignore them at your peril!

Photo attribution: Flickr user cali2okie

6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

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I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. Here are six lessons I’ve learned from thirty years of conference organizing.

1) One of the most important ways I use volunteers is during the earliest conference planning stages to determine whether a proposed event is marketable.

Here’s my simple rule of thumb when deciding whether an idea for a conference might work.

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?

If I can’t easily find at least five volunteers enthusiastic about a conference, I’ve (painfully) learned that the event is almost always not viable.

2) You’ve got a bunch of willing volunteers—what should you have them do? I try to use my volunteers for creative jobs at conferences. There’s research that indicates that paying people to do work they find interesting can make them less motivated! Here are some examples of conference tasks well suited to volunteers:

  • greeting arriving attendees
  • introducing attendees to each other
  • facilitating sessions
  • organizing and running fun activities

In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.

3) Talk with each volunteer individually well before the event. Ask them how they’d like to help, and come to a clear understanding as to what’s expected from them.

4) Volunteers are sometimes less reliable than paid staff. Make sure you have a few people who can cover for last-minute gaps in your volunteer staff during the event.

5) Reward your volunteers throughout the event. Make sure volunteers receive refreshments, meals, and access to conference amenities. If they are attending the conference, offer them reduced or free admission. Reimburse them for any incidental expenses they incur.

6) Never take your volunteers for granted! Make sure you recognize their contributions, not only publicly, using appropriate perks, awards, and publicity, but also privately. Show them you genuinely appreciate their contributions, and they will become your biggest boosters.

Image attribution: flickr user sanjoselibrary – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic

How do you use volunteers at your events? What lessons have you learned?