What Motivates the 300-Hour Volunteer?

It’s exciting when you witness someone discover their passion through volunteering. Kathy Kelley started volunteering a decade ago at the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700 acre outdoor living museum in suburban Chicago. Through the years, her identity and pride as an Arboretum volunteer has grown tremendously. So, what made volunteering there take root? 

We sat down with her to learn more about her incredible volunteer experience and what keeps her coming back, year after year.

 

What inspired you to start volunteering at the Morton Arboretum?
Kathy: This is my 10th year volunteering at the Arboretum. One of my good friends was volunteering one weekend at a big fall festival and I got hooked on it. Now, the process of becoming a volunteer is much different; you apply and have an interview. The Arb has 1,592 volunteers in all capacities. They have people who work every week taking out invasive species. They have people who help with mailings. They have all ages. You find your niche. My first year, I did 3 hours and 30 minutes. The second year I had 27 hours. This year, I will have over 300 volunteer hours.

 

Do you get any perks as a volunteer?
Kathy: You’re considered an active volunteer if you volunteer 40 hours or more a year. You get 20 percent off at the store and free admission for two people for the year. Every quarter you can get 20 percent off a class and every year they have a big volunteer appreciation dinner. You get a voucher for a free drink every time you volunteer for a coffee or soft drink. They provide special volunteer parking and entrances. They’re always saying ‘Thank You.’ Even when you’re driving out, there’s a sign that says “Thank You Volunteers.” 

 

What’s your relationship with the volunteer coordinators like?
Kathy: They’re wonderful. There’s two people – Kristin and Lucy – and they’re very appreciative. They’re very accommodating. I always bring them a box of candy at Christmas, just because when you’re working with 1,500 volunteers you get some crankypants. You log-in and post your hours on their volunteer portal, but it’s interesting because I work now a lot with special events, so they’ll text me and ask if I want to work certain things. 

 

What motivates you to volunteer so much?
Kathy: It’s my happy place. I love walking there every week, and their mission. As my professional and caregiving responsibilities lessened, I have had more time to give. [The Arboretum] is where I have chosen to spend my extra time. It’s a beautiful place, it’s a calming place. It’s also less than a mile from my house, but I know people who drive in from all over. It’s social. Some people you’ll work with just once, but others you get to see regularly and know. There’s also pride in ownership, when I take on tasks, like overseeing 5K shirts. It’s a self-motivation. I always try to see if I get a few more hours. I like working special events. I like being able to be part of the experience. 

 

Why is volunteering important in your life?
Kathy: I’ve always been a volunteer. It was instilled in us when we were little. It’s the way we were brought up. I don’t have a lot of the financial means to support something, although the Arboretum is where I have donated, but I have always thought it’s just a way of supporting an organization you believe in.

 

 

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Cutting the Paperwork

By the time you’ve printed out schedules, one sheets and waivers for your event, it can feel like you’ve decimated a small forest.

So, what can you do to digitize your event and cut back on your paper? We’ve rounded up some of our top ways to bring your event into the electronic age and minimize the amount of times you have to pick up all the papers one of the volunteers just knocked on the ground.

 

Waivers

They’re a necessary evil, but at least they don’t have to be the physical embodiment of one. Throw those waivers online and not only do you make it simple for volunteers to fill out before even getting to your event, you have an online database of every waiver you’ve received. Emailing is simple enough, though we’re partial to a folder on your desktop with all the signed waivers and an excel document checking off which volunteer has sent theirs in. But that’s just us! You do you.

 

Sign Up

This one’s a no brainer. There’s no need to have volunteers calling you, signing up on sheets, etc. Just get that puppy online! Simple, easy, and on the internet, which means it will live forever and you can never forget who signed up for the next shift.

 

Tutorials

Gone are the days of the one-sheets that explain everything you need to do. Instead of a typed up document telling volunteers how to do a job, why don’t you show them? Quick video tutorials are easy to shoot on a cell phone and can be emailed, uploaded to your event’s Facebook group or even just texted to the people who need to see them.

 

So there you have it, team. Save yourself some time printing and lugging papers all over and digitize what you can.

 

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Defining Accountability for Your Volunteers: Five Things to do Upfront

“What were they thinking?!”

 

If you’ve ever thought this at the end of a volunteer’s job, you know things can get ridiculous when volunteers decide to go rogue. If you think back though, maybe they didn’t have a clear understanding of their expectations or some accountability to back that up. So, what can you do to avoid more “what the heck?” moments in the future? 

 

Like many things, it starts with clear communication. This communication may be in an email, in a meeting, over the phone, or face-to-face, but know that it has to happen. Volunteers need way more than “welcome to the team,” so this is the perfect opportunity to lay out some expectations and opportunity for accountability. This will not only give them the direction they need to get started, but also will give you more peace of mind and a greater confidence in your volunteers. 

 

Top five things to define with volunteers as their volunteer coordinator: 

 

Role

When a volunteer first starts, let them know what they will be doing. Will they hand out t-shirts or be responsible for the entire check-in table? Will they be in charge of the design concepts or will they merely be using assets already created to make a flyer? Let them know what they are responsible for so they can fulfill their duties. Ask if they have questions, and then ask them to tell you their plans to carry out their mission. Having a discussion or some form of response will give you both an indicator of whether or not you are on the same page.  

 

Goal/Impact

Although it may sound redundant to you, communicate the goals and impact of what they will be doing and the goals and impact of the event overall. Maybe they know their role, but they don’t understand the big picture. Realizing how their part impacts other volunteers, the organization, and even the community will create a sense of ownership and accountability for the volunteer. That way, they know that if they back out last minute or miss a deadline, several people will be negatively impacted. 

 

Timeline

While you’ve got spreadsheets and lists and everything you might need as the volunteer coordinator, sometimes you forget to tell the volunteer what their timeline is. Add in a bit of buffer time, but then tell the volunteer when something is due. For instance, if someone is working on a newsletter for you, let them know when the first draft is due, when you need the revisions back, and when you want to send it—not just the final date you want to send it by. Or, if they are working a shift at an event, let them know when they’ll be done. No volunteer likes to stand around waiting to see if you or someone else will return to let them know if/when they can go home. Without a clear idea of start and end dates, volunteers may bail on you. 

 

Supervisor

Tell volunteers who they should first report to, especially if it isn’t you. Explain the role of the supervisor or person above them and then provide contact information for them. Volunteers need to know who to go to if they have questions or problems, but supervisors also need to be given the introduction in order to show authority when needed. 

 

Checkpoints

If you have a long project or even a long shift, make it clear what your checkpoints will be throughout the process. That way volunteers know you will be available for questions and you continue to communicate the vision of their role throughout its duration. After the duties have been completed, be sure to follow up for feedback in a survey or meeting to provide accountability for both you and the volunteer. 

 

Defining everything volunteers need to know ahead of time means you have to be organized, and you have to communicate. That means you can’t be running around doing everything last minute yourself. Instead, you’ll need to be focusing your attention on empowering your volunteers. In the end, it’s worth it when volunteers not only complete their tasks but do so with a clear understanding of their goals and expectations—minus the frustration or miscommunication. 

 

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Quick Tips to Cover Your Bases When Planning an Event

Have you ever had an event go 100% according to plan? We wish it weren’t true, but we’re guessing your answer is probably no.

 

While it’s impossible to plan for every single thing that could go wrong, making sure you have adequate backup plans in place can help minimize the stress on the actual day of the event — especially if something does go awry. Here is a list of 5 quick tips to help you prepare and make sure you have those bases covered! 

 

Standby Volunteers 

People get sick and things come up. Have a specific sign-up for “standby” volunteers. Make sure to let them know that if they haven’t heard by a certain time the day of the event, they can assume they’re not needed and can get on with their original plans. 

 

Weather Plan

If you’re organizing an outdoor event, make sure you plan for mother nature. Do you have tents or shelter that can be utilized so the event can stay outside, or do you need an indoor space as a backup? Or can you set a “rain date?” There are a number of options, just make sure to have chosen one beforehand! 

 

First Aid 

Regardless of your event, make sure to have a first aid kit ready in case someone gets hurt. In general, check out the space (indoor or outdoor) and correct any potential safety hazards. For example, if you’re organizing a volunteer race, don’t choose roads with lots of potholes. 

 

Prepare Your Volunteers & Attendees 

Communicate helpful tips to volunteers and attendees. For example, if your volunteer race is on a trail that may have uneven surfaces, let them know. If you’re doing an activity that would be best with closed-toe shoes, make it required. 

 

The Right Volunteers 

Think carefully through the types of jobs you’ll need volunteers for leading up to and during the event. Then make specific roles for volunteers instead of just having everyone sign-up for a general “volunteer” position. Giving volunteers autonomy will be motivating to them, and will also ensure you’re utilizing their skills for the right thing. 

 

No event will ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for the best possible experience for both your volunteers and your attendees! We hope this list helps your planning and we’ll cross our fingers that you’ll never actually need to use any of these tips. :) Happy planning! 

 

 

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An Interview with Lisa Barnes, of Summer of the Arts

It’s July, and summer is officially in full gear! Across the Midwest, that means picnics, road trips, and short nights. For Iowa locals, that means Iowa City Summer of the Arts. We couldn’t think of a better time to reach out to Lisa Barnes, the Executive Director, to hear more about her organization.

 

Since 2005, Summer of the Arts has created an incredible summer of entertainment, right in the heart of Iowa City, IA. Events include family-friendly festivals and weekly events like the Friday Night Concert Series and the outdoor Free Movie Series (bring lawn chairs!) As an Iowa City local myself, this organization has made summers come alive in a truly special way. 

 

How did Summer of the Arts get started originally? Is there a mission or vision that has guided you as the organization grows? 

Summer of the Arts was formed in the fall of 2005 as a way to bring together three long-running events (Iowa Arts Festival, Iowa City Jazz Festival and Friday Night Concert Series), and to share resources including fundraising, marketing, operations, etc. In 2005, there was a pilot program for the Free Movie Series, which became the 4th event added to the organization.

 

Our mission is to build community by bringing people together in the heart of Iowa City to experience, learn about, and enjoy free arts and cultural programs.

 

How have the events and festivals changed over the years?  

Over the years we have produced additional events (Downtown Saturday Night/Saturday Night Concert Series, Sand in the City, MusicIC, Celebrate the Season, Landlocked Film Festival), and in 2013 we started producing the Iowa Soul Festival, which is now the Soul & Blues Festival.

 

With the four core events, each year we review the event and discuss ways to change or improve the event. A lot of this comes down to layout and programming and what our community wants to see. We are constantly striving to bring changes and something new to each event, while maintaining the quality people have come to expect.

 

Do you know how many people usually attend these festivals? Which festivals seem to be the most popular? 

Since we don’t have tickets or primary entrances, it’s impossible for us to accurately estimate how many people attend each event, but based on what we’ve seen, we estimate a total of 100,000 people throughout the course of the summer. 

It’s hard to guess which event is the most popular as they all have their own niche – jazz fans LOVE the Jazz Festival, movie fans enjoy the Free Movie Series, general community members who enjoy live music love to get together and dance and experience the Friday Night Concert Series, families and all backgrounds enjoy the diversity of things to do at the Iowa Arts Festival and our diverse community embraces the passion of the Soul & Blues Festival.

 

How many volunteers do you usually have for an event and how are they involved? 

The only event we produce which doesn’t have volunteers is the Friday Night Concert Series. For the Free Movie Series, we typically have around 5 volunteers who are needed to help set up our inflatable screen. For the Arts, Jazz and Soul & Blues Festivals, we have anywhere from 25-250 volunteers who help in a variety of areas like setup/teardown, staffing hydration stations, bike parking, merchandise booth, beverage garden, Eco Stations, etc. We also have our year round volunteers who serve on our board of directors and the various festival committees.

 

Are there any festivals or performers that you’ve been particularly excited about this

summer?  

For me personally, each festival brings something fun and different. I am very excited about Friday night at the Jazz Festival with The Nayo Jones Experience (vocalist) and Jane Bunnett and Maqueque (all female band with a Latin flair).

 

Thank you, Lisa! For more information about the Summer of the Arts, please visit https://summerofthearts.org .

 

 

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Nurturing Volunteer Relationships 

Volunteer coordinators know that developing relationships with volunteers takes time and intention.

 

When there are endless roles to fill, it can be important to make sure every contact isn’t an ask, and that there’s a blend of informing volunteers on developments at the organization and appreciating how much they give in the mix, too.

 

“I definitely see the value in reaching out to volunteers outside of asking them for something,” says Jana, a longtime volunteer coordinator at a homeless youth shelter. “We try to send birthday cards each year to volunteers and at least one other personalized note or small gift outside of that. That could be a quick hand-written note sent to them in the mail or a small gift with an agency branded mug, shirt, or other small token of our appreciation. These other touch points are usually not connected to an anniversary or milestone, rather just an opportunity to check in. I think it’s important to build a personal relationship with our ongoing volunteers, but I have the luxury of being able to do that more easily than an organization that works with thousands of volunteers yearly.”

 

Jana says that enlisting the help of the clients you serve can also send a meaningful message to volunteers. Think of ways the “thank you” can come from the collective voice of the organization, rather than just your position. 

 

“Because the majority of our volunteers work withthe kids here in the shelter, we will sometimes ask the kids who work with them to sign a card or even create their own. If we know a volunteer is ill or injured, we may send get well cards to let them know we are thinking of them. Our organization also has quarterly talent shows where the kids in the shelter perform songs, skits, live art installations, and more. We invite our volunteers to attend these shows as a way to celebrate the achievements of the kids they work with and we’ve had a great response from the volunteers who attend.”

 

Volunteer coordinators at non-social service organizations can also get creative. Environmental organizations might send volunteers an annual calendar with nature photography. An animal shelter could create thank you videos that get everyone’s tails wagging. Enlist your marketing and/or development team to help come up with creative touchpoints that aren’t an ask. 

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10 Truths about Volunteer Coordinating

Every volunteer coordination position is a little different than the next.

But there are some truths that are consistent across all organizations. If you are or have been a volunteer coordinator, you probably already know a lot of these to be true:

 

 

  1. Your best volunteers can turn into personal friends. You’ve spent countless hours together, so, why shouldn’t they?
  2. Finding a skilled volunteer who follows through on commitments is like finding a four-leaf clover. They expand the capacity of your organization and make a huge impact. 
  3. Seeing how passionate your volunteers are makes up for the times you’re feeling burnt out. They’re putting in time and effort because they believe in the mission.  
  4. Nobody on your team really understands how much you do until you get sick right before a big event. 
  5. Coordinating volunteers can be like herding cats, but luckily you could teach a Master’s class in cat herding. It’s all about knowing how to communicate, motivate, and organize. 
  6. Coming up with creative ways to recognize people is part of your D.N.A. From thank you notes to nominations from national awards, you know the power of appreciation. 
  7. The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are huge. You might not be pulling in a six-figure salary, or might be operating on a nonexistent budget, but you are building important relationships and making meaningful experiences. 
  8. Vintage training manuals and videos are one part terrible and one part entertaining. Word to the wise – keep those current! 
  9. Your public speaking 101 course comes in handy frequently. Whether it’s reporting on volunteer data to the board, or giving instructions to a group of volunteers while standing in the bed of a truck, you know how to deliver a message. 
  10. Volunteer management platforms trump random spreadsheets for tracking and reporting, any day. (You are reading this list on the VolunteerLocal blog, after all!) 

 

 

 

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Not All Volunteers Are Passionate – Here’s Why That’s Okay

Did you know that only 15% of volunteers do the majority of volunteering?


In volunteer recruitment, we often talk about how to inspire people who are passionate about your organization’s mission. But, the reality is, about half of volunteer hours are fulfilled by people who do not consider themselves regular volunteers. There are a number of reasons why people volunteer – and it’s not always their passion for your organization.

 

These volunteers might serve with a group from work or school, to fulfill community service hours, to attend an event for free, to try something new, and many other reasons. How do you show these volunteers the value of their contribution and maybe inspire them to come back? We have a few ideas in mind:

 

Find skills-based projects that make a measurable impact.

Maybe an inexperienced volunteer wouldn’t be the best person to greet guests or give tours, but they have plenty to offer behind the scenes to keep the event running smoothly. Try placing the new volunteer in a job where they can directly see their impact – maybe that’s set-up or assembly, or maybe they have more specific skills and can help with lights and sound. Maybe they help serve food and pass out swag – whatever it is, try to make sure it’s a task that has a goal outside of the overall event mission.

 

Create a sense of community.

People are more likely to volunteer if the work is collaborative. Try to create volunteering teams or groups to accomplish  Even if the job is more individual in nature, create space for community before and after the event. Allowing new volunteers to sign up as a group can also increase their comfort level and make it an enjoyable, positive experience.

 

Pair the new volunteers with an experienced volunteer.

Even if infrequent volunteers want to pair with a friend, place them with a station leader who can show them the ropes. Similar to the teamwork idea, putting less-experienced volunteers with someone who knows your organization culture will increase their comfort level in the new environment.

 

Increase professional exposure.

Another reason to volunteer is the networking potential! Be sure these volunteers get to meet the event organizers. Introduce them to key players in your organization and make sure they feel welcomed. Meeting corporate and nonprofit leaders can help the volunteer build their professional network.

 

Follow up. Everytime.

As with all your event volunteers, follow up with your less experienced volunteers after the event.Share follow up steps to learn more about your organization and remind them of upcoming opportunities.

 

In the end, all volunteer hours are valuable. You never know how volunteers may find your organization or event, but you can encourage them to come back, even if just for the free swag. Treat them with the same respect you would treat your regular volunteers and thank them for their service!

 

 

 

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Figuring Out When and How to Say “No Thanks” to a Volunteer

We love our volunteers and their willingness to contribute. Sure, we all have our days when everyone is driving us crazy or it just seems like it’d be easier if we did everything ourselves. But deep down, we know we couldn’t do what we do without volunteers!

 

But what about those volunteers who aren’t a great fit for your organization? Like new volunteers who don’t have the necessary experience? Or how about the volunteers that have been there forever but are bringing everyone down and holding people back? When is it time to deny a volunteer? How do you tactfully say, “no thanks”?

 

Consider and evaluate

First, be fair to yourself and your volunteer by evaluating what the situation is and if it’s possible to handle it. Do they need training or guidance from someone more experienced? Do they need to be reminded of volunteer expectations? Is there a way to talk with them about an issue or their attitude in a way that can solve the problem without having to ask them to leave? Is it not as bad as you think, and you’re simply having a bad day? Determine if there’s a way to resolve the issue or the reason they aren’t working well on the team. If there isn’t a way to do that, then proceed. Unfortunately, there will be volunteers whu just won’t work.

 

Identify and try to accommodate  

Make every effort to pinpoint what it is that doesn’t match up with your organization. For new volunteers, it might be as simple as having too many people apply for the same job. You don’t want extra people standing around looking bored at your event. If that’s the case, see if there are other opportunities for those volunteers in another area or with another event in the future. Or, maybe their application missed the deadline or their references did n’t check out. Let them know the volunteer requirements were not met and what it would take to get accepted at another point.

 

Maybe the volunteer didn’t have the skills you needed for the job you were looking to fill. If there are other ways they can still contribute, let them know what options may be a better match at this time. Offer up an area where you still need help, but be understanding if they choose not to participate in that way.  

 

If your reason for turning down a volunteer has more to do with them needing to take a break after years of work in order to give others the opportunity to serve and give a voice, make sure to do it with grace. Regardless of their situation, acknowledge the work they have contributed and how it helped get you to where you are today. Then, explain that your organization is now moving in another direction with new leadership. While you’d love their continued support, explain that this new direction requires full commitment and focus from the volunteers.  

 

Finally, if a volunteer acts in a way that goes against the mission of the organization or blatantly disregards the volunteer requirements, politely and privately ask the volunteer to step downl. Express gratitude for their service, but clarify how they have acted in a way that is not permitted on the volunteer team.

 

Thank and update

No one wants to be ghosted, so don’t just ignore the volunteer in hopes that they get the hint. Communicate clearly with volunteers and thank them for their interest and willingness to volunteer.

 

Regardless of the method, make sure this continues to come from a place of thanks, even if they aren’t the right fit. It’s flattering to be a sought-after organization and maybe at another point the fit will be right. If there will be more opportunities for them to volunteer in a different capacity or at a different time, let them know that you plan to contact them again in the future. And then follow through with that commitment. If this person is probably better off not returning, make a (private) note in their records, wish them well and again, thank them for their time or interest or willingness. Even if a volunteer is leaving on bad or uncomfortable terms, there’s probably at least one thing you can thank them for.


In the end, make sure your “no thanks” includes both “no” and “thanks.”

 

 

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Setting Your Volunteers in Motion Before the Event

The other day I had a conversation with a coworker about a crazy situation that happened leading up to a major event several years ago. She just said one sentence, and we burst into laughter as we recalled all of the stress and scrambling that happened behind the scenes.

 

Things like that have a way of growing funnier the more time passes, especially when the crisis is averted. But it brought up an interesting point. Since my coworker and I lived that stressful situation, we could recall all the details in an instant, and yet no one attending or volunteering for the event had a clue what happened. That happens a lot in our line of work, doesn’t it? Staff members put in a huge amount of hours and have crazy work experiences surrounding the event, but typically we keep the last-minute crises under wraps.

 

It’s often a necessary part of the job, but there are ways we can communicate with our volunteers in the days and weeks leading up to the event that can help both volunteers and staff be more efficient and prepared at the time of the event.

 

Transparency: Tell them what you and your team are doing

As previously stated, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes happenings that don’t need to be shared. But it can be helpful to communicate to your volunteers about the work you and your team are doing. Giving them a high level overview helps them understand the broad scope of event planning while also demonstrating how they fit into the grand scheme of things.

 

By sharing some of the details of your preparation and goals, your volunteers are both better ready to jump into the middle of things. They are also more prone to show grace to you and to others when the unexpected things derail the original plan along the way.

 

Share these details 5-7 days before the event in order to get your volunteers into the right mindset.

 

Preparation: Tell them what they should be doing

Let’s get practical! Communicate the necessary details that allow your volunteers to arrive with everything they need, including realistic expectations. List items to bring along, clothing recommendations, maps of the venue including meeting places, and other amenity details such as restroom locations and food and beverage options. When your volunteers show up prepared, they are more confident and eager to work while also more likely to have an enjoyable experience.

 

Share these details 3-5 days before the event to give your volunteers time to gather things they may need.

 

Teamwork: Tell them what you can be doing together

One of the best parts of coordinating volunteers in the age of social media is that you don’t have to do all the communicating yourself! Alert your volunteers of your organization’s social media posts so they can share it on their personal accounts. Or provide them with approved images and talking points, so they can create their own posts. Whatever approach you take, celebrate these little ways you can work in tandem with your volunteers before the event.

 

Share these details 1-3 days before the event to build buzz leading up to the big day.

 

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