Dec 6, 2010

Running a volunteer effort

In my other life I'm a development consultant (that's fundraising) for nonprofit organizations. I do fund appeal letters, grant writing, and organizing events and volunteer efforts.

The two worlds intersect at volunteer management, as I organize the ice show volunteers at my rink.

All rinks, in fact youth sports in general, rely on volunteers-- everyone has moms who help with the ice show, as well as practice ice monitors, club officials, etc.

The trick to getting a volunteer effort to work is to seek involvement at a level that people are comfortable with. You want to have a wide range of jobs so people can choose what they like to do. It also includes accepting that some people do not want to participate. If the first rule of fundraising is "you don't get donations you don't ask for" then the second rule is that you cannot compel giving. Some people simply to do not give (or at any rate don't give to you or your cause). Once you're comfortable with those two things-- asking for help, and taking no for an answer-- it's simply a matter of keeping the balls in the air.

And volunteering is giving. A gift of time is actually a deeper level of commitment than a gift of money, and should be honored as such. When cultivating donors for a cause, the first thing you seek is a small cash gift; recruiting for volunteers is way down the line.

Therefore, when recruiting volunteers for an effort like an ice show, the first thing to remember is that these people are already big donors in a way-- their commitment, via the checks they write for classes and lessons-- is considerable. The more they are already involved in your program, the more receptive they are to the "ask."

An ice show needs a lot of volunteers. I start 10 weeks out to make sure I have time (in fact I start several years out, to make sure that I have experienced parents in 5 years, when this year's high school Freshman parents are gone).

The mechanics

Start with a "passive" ask-- simply a form in the show packet, at least 10 weeks out. It's going to take you right up to the day of the dress rehearsal to get everyone you need; if you don't start early you're going to have to be a nuisance at the end, which will turn people off. It's also another one of those little fundraising rules that very few people give the first time they are aware of a need. You have to advertise over and over.

Up until a few years ago, I would attend the second rehearsal of every skating group and just talk it up in the stands. You want to recruit the parents of children old enough to be on their own-- parents of children 7 or younger generally need to be with their own kids (and this may include younger sibs who don't skate). You also want to get parents committed while their kids are young, because these are going to be your long term volunteers, who will use the gossip machine to help you recruit. Don't forget the nannies and the dads.

Nowadays I do some on-site recruiting, but mostly I do it through email. Once rehearsals start I send out a blast to every family in the show, with a fairly strong pitch. I follow this every 10 days or so with progressively less strident messages, and making sure to remove the people who have already signed up. The final week before the show I amp it up again, both at the rink and in email, that "we really really need your help"!

The message
Any good fundraising pitch emphasizes that the giver benefits from giving. Use the word "you" a lot, make sure they understand how vital the effort is, and how easy it is-- you give as much or as little time as you can. I always include in at least one pitch that it's also okay not to do this, much as we'd like everyone to participate.

The goal
To reach your goal, you first have to know what it is. I generally aim for 60 to 80 volunteers for show week (about 12 to 15 per show); since my target population is only 200 households, that's a very high participation rate. And I hate to say it, but I aim that high because there is always attrition in volunteer efforts-- 10 people will sign up, but only 6 (or fewer) will actually show. Accept this. The only consequence for not showing up is that person doesn't get a thank you letter. It is OKAY not to volunteer. (Well, it's not, but I understand it.)

Since the major need for volunteers at an ice show is "baby wrangling" (i.e. supervising the kids), a good guideline for the number you'll need is whatever the local school teacher-ratio mandate is. Generally, one adult for every 20 to 30 kids will work, especially since you've also got actual staff, and each child's parent is going probably going to tie their skates. So for my approximately 100 younger skaters, who all gather in the gym, I like to have 3 to 5 volunteers per night. If possible, arrange for separate dressing areas so that fathers can also participate in supervision.

If you get to show week and you don't have enough people, recruit on the spot.

The response mechanism
The "response mechanism" in fundraising is the form you fill out. A good form will increase your participation rate, because people like to fill out forms. This year I pioneered using the two-click calendar at Volunteer Spot, which has the additional advantage of being widely used by grade schools, so a lot of parents are already familiar with it. However, I also had paper forms, both emailed and available at the rink, and allowed people to leave me notes, or send their preferences straight to my email. It's a little more work for me, but allowed the donor to use a response mechanism that they were comfortable with.

Make sign up as easy as possible-- use a form with check boxes, but keep the options few and clear-- a list of dates, and a list of jobs. The form should be simple, with minimal graphics. Jobs should have obvious titles so people don't have to guess, e.g. "supervise Boy's Dressing Room." Leave training/actual enumeration of duties for the event itself. If you have the staff for it, sometimes the easiest thing to do is have a knowledgeable staff person at a desk called "Volunteer Sign Up." Since a lot of people now carry their calendars around with them in the form of smart phones, this can be extremely effective.

The schedule

Put the schedule up well ahead of the event, so that people can complain that they NEVER said they would do that (you have the form, but fine, let them change it). I make a simple grid using the table option in Word-- one row for each date, one column for each volunteer location. People then check to see if their name is on the correct date and assigned to the correct location.

For experienced volunteers, I always alert them that they may not get their first choice of job, depending on volunteer turn out. New volunteers get the job they ask for. (So you can suck them into your evil web...)

The Reward
I take the concept of altruism with a giant grain of road salt. People want quid pro quo. The trick is understanding what value they are assigning this. For most donors, the altruistic reward is actually fairly far down the list. Donors like being part of an effort; this is why web-based fundraising is so successful-- even a minimal donation makes you part of the herd, a powerful incentive. People who give to galas and other public events like access and recognition, which is why you see donor lists divided by level, and why organizations give freebies to famous people. (hmmm, I wonder if I can get Michelle Kwan to volunteer....)

Some volunteers like to know what's going on, so be sure to give them lots of information-- take them aside and do a brief orientation and pep talk, let them know where everything is, and who they can come to with problems. Watch for the petty dictators; find them a job where they can be in charge without stepping on people's toes.

Make sure people know who the volunteers are. They are often motivated by a desire to be in the inner circle, but not so inner that the outsiders can't identify them. Give them a badge in a bright color; if it can be nicely designed or presented in a badge holder, even better. (These are expensive, so a lot of rinks won't foot the bill. But a label on a bright piece of card stock works just as well.) Have extras, have blanks, so that people who lose them or last minute sign ups still get a badge.

After the event
Say thank you. Put up a sign. Send a card or an email. Do both. Let people know you appreciated their help. Let them know how important they were to the success of the show. (They are.) Tell them that you're counting on them to help next time, too.

A really good volunteer effort will hold an annual recognition luncheon, with public thanks and if possible actual awards. All volunteers- costume shop, show, ice monitors, hockey score keepers, whatever- should be included. Even if you "pay" your volunteers with ice time or comped classes this is very important to a strong program. Unfortunately it's also expensive, so not every program can do it.

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