Event planning is a 5 billion dollar industry. It’s a beast, with lots of specialties and niches. One that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last few years is the volunteer event planning niche. This experience came in the form of House of Genius, Startup Weekend and on a larger scale, PHX Startup Week. All of these events are entirely fueled by local volunteers.
When money and financial incentives are taken off the table, expectations and standards shift – everything is easier once you admit to that. However, getting the right people onboard can still the event the quality and volunteer dedication it deserves. As with anything, there are pros and cons.
Here are nine steps to successfully navigating the volunteer event management space:
- Define your event purpose. By clarifying the ‘why’ behind your event, you’ll be able to attract like-minded people to support you on your journey. When people aren’t being paid for work, especially over an extended period of time, they’ll need a sense of fulfillment to keep them committed and prevent burnout.
- Manage your event like a business. This means moving conversations and to-do’s from your inbox to project and event management tools. For example, use Basecamp or Asana for task management, Sched for schedule management and SignUpGenius or Slotted for volunteer or session registration.
- Outline clear role responsibilities. This is crucial. Don’t just say, “We need help. Join us!” This is setting yourself up for failure. With larger-scale or ongoing volunteer support, it’s important to be honest about the time commitment and pros and cons of taking on a specific role or task. That way, your team members can’t say, “Well I didn’t realize…”, because you clearly defined it at the on-set.
- Perfect your pitch. Normally with volunteer events, unless you’re incredibly lucky or have a corporate sugar daddy, you’ll need to raise money. You’ll likely always be on the hunt for additional funding, so make sure you understand your external value proposition. While the fluffy feel-good stuff is great, most sponsors need to understand the real ROI from events to rationalize contributions.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself. At the end of the day, none of your volunteers really owe you anything. I’ve had a number of volunteers disappear off the face of the planet, only to resurface months later with exciting news about a new (paid) venture or opportunity. While frustrating, I get it. Usually, volunteer work helps open up future job opportunities. However exciting, you’ll likely be down a volunteer and scrambling to try to find a replacement. Mentally prepare for the worst case scenario and have a backup plan to support it.
- Show appreciation. For those who do stick around and put in the blood, sweat and tears, show your appreciation. Again, they owe you and your event nothing. It’s important to recognize those who do go above and beyond and help bring together a masterpiece, just out of the goodness of their heart.
- Accept your MVP. Even when building a paid product, it’s important to understand your limitations as opposed to pushing for those few small tweaks. When you’re working with a group of volunteers, this reality becomes even more important. Not only that, but is striving for perfection really the best use of their volunteered time?
- Be cautious when engaging your network. While you might feel passionately about your volunteer efforts, it’s important not to push it on your network and exhaust your resources. When you do reach out for support, be specific with your ask and generous with your thanks.
- Treat volunteer recruiting like hiring. Look at experience, check references and vet (formally or informally) before adding new team members to your team. One weak link when there’s so much responsibility can really impact the overall experience for the organizing team as well as the end result.
While volunteer events lack a more formalized sense of commitment, in my experience, the passion and sense of internal dedication is so much higher. In my experience, the community development and relationships created outweigh the lack of financial compensation.
At the end of the inaugural PHX Startup Week, an organizing member asked me how I thought something so large could be sustained in years to come. At the time, I didn’t know if it could. Now, almost a year later, I know that it can be sustained, so long as there are people in the community who continue to believe in our mission to connect, cultivate and celebrate the Arizona entrepreneurial ecosystem.