6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

using volunteers at conferences
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. I’ve spent over thirty years organizing meetings. Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

1) Is this conference marketable?

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) Use volunteers for creative work

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) Check in with your volunteers

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) Plan to have enough volunteers

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

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.

These are the 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

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

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

8 thoughts on “6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

  1. Hi Adrian,
    Having run many conferences I can endorse your comments as a very helpful picture of how to work with and manage volunteers. You make it clear just how important they are to running events.
    Even the Olympic Games in Sydney relied heavily on thousands of volunteers who loved serving and without whom the event would not have been possible.
    Perhaps another point you could mention is the need to build some form of community of interested and, at some level, committed volunteers throughout the year via social events, blogs, social media, and personal connection. People who have a sense of community are much more reliable than volunteers who have availability but not much connection.
    Thanks for your article

    1. John, I couldn’t agree more with your suggestions to create a community of volunteers that is refreshed and renewed throughout the year. It’s so important, and pays rich dividends (besides being the right thing to do whenever possible).

  2. I’m always surprised that more people don’t use volunteers at events. When I worked in higher education, going to the volunteer booth at the annual meeting and signing up for some responsibilities was just part of the routine. We often forget that engaging people as volunteers allows them to meet new people and form new connections, even if doing more mechanical work, so it is an excellent opportunity for newcomers in particular.

    1. Jeffrey, thanks for responding here; I’ve been a fan of your work (and smart aperçus) for some time!

      Yes, it’s a waste of a great resource not to seek out and invite those folks who “get” the positives of volunteering and have the time free to volunteer. And if you are sensitive to their needs and realistic in what you ask them to do, most of them, in my experience, will really appreciate the opportunity and gain in all kinds of (often unexpected) ways.

      P.S. If you can’t find a pool of useful volunteers after making a reasonable effort, it’s a sign that what you’re trying to do probably doesn’t have significant community support.

  3. I use volunteers at all my events as well. They are always enthusiastic about helping and jumping in where they can. I have them run silent auctions, serve as “room hosts” in breakouts, greet guests, host small group dinners… the possibilities are endless. I always send a hand-written thank you note and a small token of appreciation after the event in addition to the perks you mentioned in your article.

    1. Like Jeffrey, I’m surprised more conference organizers don’t follow our example Sheila. Volunteers are a valuable yet often overlooked resource. They are not free, because they require committed attention, care, and direction—but they are invariably well worth having.

  4. Great ways to use volunteers Adrian…probably why your conferences are so popular. If you put that much thought into your volunteers it’s likely you put that much thought into everything.

    I would like to add one thing you should never do. Tell a volunteer that you no longer need them. Things change, that’s inevitable, but if someone committed their time to help out…please…find something for them to do. Nothing will turn an enthusiastic supporter into an enemy faster than disrespecting them.

    1. Good add Traci. When I notice that a volunteer seems dissatisfied with what s/he has been doing, I’ll check my observation with them and, if necessary, initiate a discussion on what might be a better fit from other tasks available. If it turns out that there’s nothing that fits for the volunteer s/he may step down at that point, but then it’s her/his decision, not mine. Finally, when any volunteer leaves I publicly (if at all possible) and privately (always) thank them for their service.

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