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?