How to engage and retain amazing event volunteers

How to retain amazing event volunteers

It’s fall in the bustling metropolis of Toronto and for us here at the Centre, we’re in the thick of a busy event season. As the seasons change, I can’t help but reflect on the past summer. I had the privilege to be one of 20,000-something volunteers helping to make the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games a reality. For 16 days in July, I donated my time to the Games, something I had been planning for a year. My intent was to do something different and view this once-in-a-lifetime, large-scale, multi-national special event from the inside. The experience was sensational; I was stationed in the Athlete’s Village, adjacent to the posh Distillery District in Toronto, and witnessed the 6,000+ athletes in their natural habitat. Dozens of departments worked together to make the Village run seamlessly and each relied heavily on hundreds of unpaid staff. As an events person, I have a deep appreciation for the time and resources that go into producing an event and it astounded me how much the volunteers did and were trusted to do to make the Games a success. I don’t think I’m out of line by saying that the Orange Shirts were the life blood of the Games’ execution.

After my final shift, I dove back into my job at the Centre, and also into my biggest event at the MTCC: the canfitpro World Fitness Expo. This annual event is produced by Canadian Fitness Professionals and is geared towards fitness professionals and fitness consumers. My newfound empathy for volunteers made me acutely aware of the large purple-shirt cohort of volunteers that canfitpro recruits for their Toronto conference. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Toronto 2015 and canfitpro: either event would simply not be possible without the dedication of their volunteers.

This made me wonder about the altruistic tendencies of the people who offer their time to making events happen. What is the motivation to work long hours for no money? What is received in return?

Canfitpro sees a volunteer return rate year upon year of about 70%, which is not only amazing, but really contributes to the success of the event. These seasoned volunteers know the event operation and can be set free to do what needs to be done with little supervision. That autonomy, as with my Toronto 2015 experience, was crucial to my supervisors. By Day 4 in the Village, I was entrusted with a radio and sent out to pasture where I could help out where needed, and also learn about the event operation. This was essential in keeping me engaged during some of the long shifts.

During the World Fitness Expo, volunteer engagement is also a concern to the 30-some-odd Team Leaders who manage the 450-500 volunteers on-site. Finding each volunteer’s forte isn’t obvious at first while going through the recruiting and orientation process, but once a groove is found, canfitpro Team Leaders encourage volunteers to own their role and provide helpful feedback based on their experience with the event.

So what else do volunteers get from donating their time, in addition to all of those fuzzy, glowing feelings? Well, canfitpro actually has a Volunteer of the Year award that is given out at the closing ceremonies and in front of thousands of fitness professionals and fellow volunteers. I’ve witnessed the handing out of this award and judging by the acceptance speech of one deserving person, I’d say it was a humbling and gratifying reward. Volunteers are also allowed access to educational sessions at the conference and passes to the tradeshow. Many of the volunteers are fitness professionals or enthusiasts so this is seen as a tremendous perk. As a Toronto 2015 volunteer, I was invited to the opening ceremonies rehearsal at the Rogers Centre and given a ticket to watch the indoor track cycling at the Milton Velodrome. Although the physical gifts were nice, the best recognition that I could’ve received was a sincere and resounding THANK YOU from my supervisors. It made me feel useful, and no amount of Pachi dolls found in Nathan Phillip’s Square could’ve made me feel more appreciated.

This summer I learned firsthand about the value of recruiting, training, and recognizing event volunteers. In many cases, these people are the face of the event and can have a tremendous impact on the event operation and identity. Each branded shirt is another piece in the puzzle of producing successful events.

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