Recruiting & Managing Volunteers
It’s probably not an overstatement to say that volunteers are the backbone of every successful race. They are the people that make much of race day happen and, yet, recruiting and managing volunteers, training them properly and retaining them for the long run remains a constant headache for race directors of all levels of experience.
Well, today we’re going to try and make everyone’s life a little bit easier by going over some great tips and strategies for streamlining your volunteer recruitment and fine-tuning all aspects of your volunteer management. We’ll discuss tips for balancing your volunteer load across volunteer shifts, creating mega shifts with enough buffer to make sure you’ve got all the people you need on race day, and some tried-and-tested tactics to mitigate volunteer attrition.
My guest for today’s discussion, Tim Bradley, is the volunteer coordinator for the McCourt Foundation, organizers of the Los Angeles Marathon and other marquee races. Tim has recruited and managed thousands of volunteers over the years and, as you’ll see, he has developed a very specific approach to running volunteer programs, based on evidence and experimentation.
In this episode:
- What motivates volunteers to volunteer for a race
- Volunteer recruitment for for-profit vs nonprofit races
- The cost of recruiting and managing volunteers: donations, free entries, shirts, meals, transportation
- What volunteers can and can't do for your race
- Organizing your volunteer force: flat vs hierarchical team structures
- Qualities to look for in your group captains and super-volunteers
- Tim's detailed volunteer recruitment plan/schedule
- Recruiting individual volunteers vs recruiting volunteer groups
- Load balancing, mega shifts and diversification: making sure your shifts fill up evenly across the board
- The importance of mega shifts and shift buffers/padding for mitigating volunteer attrition on race day
- Working out how many volunteers you'll need for your race
- Recruiting volunteers through email, social media, paid ads, text messages, cold calling, volunteer marketplaces
- Building a volunteer mailing list
- Signing up volunteers from your past race participants
- Recruiting groups of volunteers from high school service clubs, sports teams
- How to link to your volunteer program/sign up page from your website
- Reducing friction throughout your volunteer signup process
- Singing in and briefing volunteers on race day
- Practical food/snack ideas for volunteers and how to distribute them on race day
- "Thank you" emails and issuing volunteer service verification letters
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Tim, welcome to the podcast!
Thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here!
Well, thank you very much for coming on. I'm really excited today to cover the topic of recruiting and managing volunteers - super relevant for most race directors - which is a topic that we should have tackled, probably, earlier in the podcast. When it comes to volunteers, I think you're a person with a huge amount of experience, both as the volunteer coordinator for the McCourt Foundation and the developer of your very own volunteer management software, TitanVolunteers. So, why don't we start by you telling our listeners a little bit about both of those aspects of your work and, sort of, how they came together?
Sure. I got my start in the marathon industry back in 2008 - I ran a marathon. Then, I became a volunteer and I really enjoyed it. Then, I did operations for a while as, kind of, like, a race weekend crew. I was doing, like, 40 or 50 events a year, kind of, working on little 5Ks. Then, I pivoted into volunteer management around 2016 and that ended up being a really good niche. I've been here ever since. I feel like I've been able to, kind of, figure it out and bring some efficiencies to it, especially, through website and stuff. So, I have multiple different clients. One of my clients is McCourt Foundation - the LA Marathon folks. I also work for, like, Surf City Marathon, Long Beach Marathon, and Herbalife triathlon - these are local events in the Los Angeles, California area.
And McCourt Foundation-- I guess, Los Angeles Marathon is their marquee event. What other races do they do?
They also do the Roseville Half Marathon and the Santa Monica Classic. They are a nonprofit organization that raises money for neurological disease research and support - stuff like Alzheimer's, ALS, and Parkinson's - so, they have a good cause and they are good folks. I really enjoy working with them.
Yeah. Also, as part of those races, I guess, what was, like, the largest volunteer force you got to manage for those races?
Definitely, LA Marathon. They typically get around 20,000 finishers for the marathon, I think. So, that's definitely one of the bigger ones that requires a pretty big volunteer force. It's also a point-to-point course, so there are a lot of different water stations - recently, it didn't double back at all. So, at every 26 miles, you'll basically have a water station and those need a lot of volunteers.
And TitanVolunteers which is, sort of, the volunteer management platform that you've put together - tell us a little bit about that.
So, TitanVolunteers.com is a volunteer management website that I created. When I first got into volunteer coordinating, I used different websites and I saw different features that I liked. I also, kind of, had my own ideas of features to add. I had some experience in designing websites, so I created TitanVolunteers.com. Now, I use it for all of my events. It's hugely efficient. It lets volunteer groups create their own groups, which is a big time saver. You don't have to email back and forth between these group leaders, manually try to assign them a shift, and track how many volunteers are going in an Excel spreadsheet. It also has really nice reports. There's a detailed control panel. It has a verification letter generator. So, if your volunteers request for verification letters - which a lot of them need for their service hours - that will just generate it. There's a way to mass add, delete, and edit shifts, and duplicate events. It'll change all the years on the shifts to the next year for you. So, there are just a lot of efficiencies - one of my main goals has been to save a lot of time.
Super! You've been using them for the events that you manage volunteers for. Can anyone, sort of, go on TitanVolunteers and sign up?
Absolutely. I started it off as my own software. I was the main user of it. I got most of the bugs out and now it's ready to go. Anybody can sign up and the first event is free.
Awesome. Okay, so we have so much to go through today. We'll touch on recruitment, volunteer management on race day and retaining people - so, a bunch of really, really interesting areas. I want to start us at an entry-level - before going into recruitment and all that - to just understand volunteering and, sort of, why people do it. You mentioned that you ran your first marathon in 2009, then you went on to become a volunteer - like, you've seen thousands of volunteers whom you've managed. Why did you go into volunteering? And why do people generally volunteer for races? Why would they give up their time for something like that?
Oh, I found my story really interesting. There are just a lot of moving parts - bigger events, especially, have a really cool vibe because there's all this stuff coming together out of nowhere and all sorts of stuff going on. So, that was, kind of, what planted the seed or the event bug in me. In general, for volunteers, I felt that there are a couple of different types of volunteers and motivations. There are a lot of high school volunteers knocking out their service hours - sometimes, they're mandatory and, sometimes, the service hours help with college applications that are really competitive. There are also groups that are motivated by donations. There are individuals that are motivated by incentives like free races. There are people with a lot of free time who end up becoming a regular and volunteer for packet pickups, especially on Fridays when you can't get the high schoolers because they're in school. I noticed that group can be pretty tight-knit - they make friends with the other regulars and then they, kind of, keep coming back to see their friends and stuff.
Right. So while I was listening to that, I'm wondering, "Do volunteers generally tend to volunteer for nonprofit races?" Do you think, like, it's generally harder for for-profit races to acquire volunteers because, maybe, people are looking for a cause to support and all that?
Some of the races I work for are for-profit with a charity beneficiary and some are directly nonprofit. In my experience, the volunteers don't usually ask questions about that. I think they're more concerned about, kind of, getting credit for their service hours, sometimes. So, it hasn't been an issue, which is probably a good thing because the volunteers make it so that we can put on these amazing races.
Indeed. So, one of the very important, I think, perhaps, confusions around volunteers for some people who are directing races is the cost of recruiting volunteers, keeping them happy and, like, providing them with some perks and everything they need to do the job. Can you help us understand the cost around running a volunteer program, recruiting volunteers, and all of that - what is, sort of, the typical cost? It's certainly not free, is it?
No, there are definitely a couple of different price points and expenses for a volunteer program. They're important because that's how you recruit volunteers and give them a good enough experience to come back next year. So, the types of things that cost money would be volunteer shirts - you'll purchase those, pass those out when they check-in. The shirts will make them look official during the race, and they also make a great souvenir. You'll need to provide some water, snacks, and meals for the volunteers in some of the shifts - you definitely want to make sure that you keep them well-fed and not thirsty - it's a big part of the volunteer experience. Usually, you will need some kind of volunteer coordinator - unless you're trying to do that yourself in addition to all the other things that race directors do. If you have trouble getting volunteers, you'll probably also need to factor in a donation program so that you can make donations to volunteer groups and incentivize them that way, or you'll need to be prepared to give some free entries to, probably, a future race.
So, the expenses that we're talking about are the costs for the volunteers to be able to do their job, sustain themselves on race day and, like, wear some cool race gear - we're also talking about, perhaps, like, a donation or contribution to a cause or something like that. But in your experience, are volunteers ever paid to take part and support the race?
I haven't seen volunteers get paid a salary because that would make them employees. I haven't seen money go directly from an organization to an individual volunteer. A lot of times, what I saw is donations going to groups. So, you'll find the volunteer groups such as, like, maybe, a high school sports team or something, you'll talk to their coach, and you'll be, like, "Hey, for every volunteer that signs in, we'll make a $20 donation to your group." Then, they will have 10 volunteers sign in. And after the race, you count them up and send them a check of $200 to their organization. That avoids any issues with payroll and salary while still supporting great groups.
And that goes even for, kind of, like, the super volunteers - like, the key people, the skilled people who are not like other volunteers - who may be a little bit fungible? Would you even pay those?
Well, that depends. I mean, in my opinion, a super volunteer is basically a staff member in training. So, they'll eventually make the switch, hopefully.
Right. Okay. So, as we've touched on the topic of, like, skill in a volunteer-- when you recruit volunteers, how skilled of a job can you expect a volunteer to be able to manage? Where do you draw the line between your volunteer force and more specialized people in your team that needs to be employees?
Yeah. I think we need to be careful and make sure that we're not expecting too much of volunteers. Sometimes, I'll have, like, a race director come up to me and be, like, "Hey, we need a super volunteer to do this or that complex job." In my mind, I'm kinda like, "Maybe, you should hire a staff member for that." But sometimes, it can be hard to have that conversation. There's definitely a difference. There's only so much that you can expect from somebody who just shows up on that day - it's their first day - who is able to handle that. I'd say the line is somewhere around, like-- if you can train them for half an hour, then, that's within their ability to handle. But if it's more complex than that, if it requires more training, more experience, and lead-up work, then it's time to start thinking about hiring a staff member.
Right. Are there other jobs that you will definitely never think of handing over to a volunteer - like, something really critical that absolutely shouldn't be managed by volunteers?
I think some of the roles that staff take on-- anything that requires a lot of lead-up work probably wouldn't be a good fit for a volunteer. Anything that requires niche skills like an announcer, a timer, or anything that requires complex equipment, you definitely can't get a volunteer for that. Anything that requires advanced social skills - if you really need a person to make a great impression on your VIPs and your sponsors, then you need somebody that has, like, sales and relationship background. Long hours - I don't think you'll be able to recruit a volunteer to work, like, 15 hours at a Mud Run, for example, that some of the staff members do there. I think you're gonna have a limit of about eight hours of what the volunteers are willing to do. Box truck driving - that's kind of a gray area. I've definitely seen a couple of races try to recruit volunteers to do that. But in my opinion, if I am the race director, I'll probably hire staff for that. Arriving early - it's very difficult to get volunteers to arrive before 5 AM, it's very difficult to get them to arrive before 4 AM.
Okay, super. So basically, you're saying any job that would require them to show up before then is probably best handed over to a team member. So, in terms of the structure of a typical volunteer team - I think, you've worked on volunteer teams of all sizes - what is the best way to structure that? In my mind, I'm thinking teams, sub-teams, team leaders, and stuff like that. I think, from other discussions that we've had in the past, that maybe you're leaning a little bit more on a flatter kind of structure. What is a good middle ground between the two?
So, I think that the website should be a flat structure. I think the website should combine as many shifts as possible. So, instead of having Friday packet pickup, Friday T-shirts, Friday volunteer check-in, I think it should just be Friday Expo. You get them on-site and you keep it simple. The only directions you send them are how to get on-site, where the volunteer check-in is, some maps and addresses. You get them on-site, they check-in and sign in, you start dividing people up depending on how many volunteers you get and what areas you need them in, and then you walk them over to the corresponding coordinator who will assign and train them. So in my opinion, the website should be flat. Then, once they go on-site, you can get some hierarchy. The hierarchy would be the coordinator of the area and then the volunteers you assign them.
Okay. So, are the coordinator and all the volunteers, sort of, like, all paired in, like, a single layer? Or are we thinking, sort of, coordinator, then group leads, then smaller teams under that?
I think that one is still flat. So, if an area is complex enough, I think the staff member that's in charge of that area will have staff assistance and the volunteers will get trained on the basics so that they can, kind of, help out with the basics. Then, if there's anything complex that comes up, they should have good staff support. If there's an upset runner, if there's something complex that comes up that is outside of what they were trained, I think that they should be able to lean on a staff member for that kind of thing.
Right. Within that, sort of, like, general task area - where you have a bunch of volunteers for something like aid stations and other parts of the race - you may need, at some point, to have one person to, sort of, manage a few other people. How do those people emerge among the volunteers that you've recruited? Are they, sort of, the veteran volunteers or the people who have been around before? Or do they just put their hand up and say, "I want to be, sort of, like, the aid station leader"? How does it work?
That's a good point. That's the one exception to what I was just talking about - water station captains. Some races have been able to create a culture where they find some super volunteers that come back year after year who really like helping out with managing the water stations. Usually, how that'll work is, depending on the race, they'll either drive the truck and check in on all the volunteers that manage the water station on race day, or someone else will drive the truck and then they'll just focus on managing the water station on race day. So, that's one of the few examples of a super volunteer that's common. The way you find water station captains-- one effective way to find water station captains that I found is through the volunteer's 'Thank you' email - that's a good time to recruit because the people who just volunteered at the water station are still excited about volunteering at the water station. So, that's a really good time to put out a call for water station captains. Then, you kind of keep a list of those folks and you make sure to contact them next year. Then, you have one or two meetings to give them all the training and support they need.
Right. What kind of qualities do you look for in a person to run a water station?
Well, they definitely need to be very reliable because, usually, you're only going to recruit one. So, you need to make sure that they're motivated enough to show up reliably at the water station on race morning - or else your course people are going to have to jump in and, kind of, manage the water station for them - and they need to be experienced. They need to have worked at the water station at least one year before and, kind of, understand how it works. They need to attend the training and pay attention - we give them diagrams of how to set up the water station, how much to fill up the cups, and little details like that.
So actually, you do provide additional training to those kinds of people before race day. And I suspect that you cross your fingers that they would show up because it's very difficult to train someone else to do that, right?
Yes. For water station captains, I usually do one or two training depending on the race. And you can usually tell if somebody is going to show up if they attend the training - that's kind of a common pattern. The same pattern also applies to volunteer signup websites. If you get a group that signs up and then their members don't sign up for the group, then you, kind of, know that's a flaky group, so you need to follow up and get them to adjust their number, or cancel, or sign up their members. There's a strong correlation between taking the time to do something before the race - such as signing up on the website or attending the training - and actually attending.
Right. Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, there's a little bit of correlation in terms of figuring out how reliable someone is through the signup process - you get signals from that of whether people are going to show up. And we're going to go into the topic of attrition later on - it's an important topic. Only a couple of days ago, in our Race Directors Hub on Facebook - the group we have for race directors - there was a question from, like, a very disappointed race director about very few people showing up, which can be really tough for race directors to adjust to on race day. So, we'll go into that. Before that, I want to touch a little bit on your experience of recruiting volunteers and other very important topics - getting people to sign up for the race. So first things first, how early, in your opinion, should a race director look to open up their volunteer recruitment program?
All right. Here's the schedule I use - 16 weeks out, you create the volunteer website. It's okay if it goes to, like, 14 weeks out because you spend the first two weeks emailing back and forth and working out the details. At 16 weeks, that's when you kind of start working to get the volunteer website up and get a link to your volunteer signup website on your main race website. At 11 weeks, you send your first volunteer email blast to your list of volunteers that have attended that race before and any other leads you have for that county. Then, after that, you send three or four more email blasts to your volunteer list, depending on how your signups go. If that's going well or not going well, then you can do additional things as well.
Okay, super. I know email blast is a big thing for you, and we're gonna go into that in a second. In terms of how people sign up - I guess you get, like, individuals that you've emailed to just go on to the website and sign up - how does that tie in with what you said earlier about approaching schools and other, kind of, like, groups of people that tend to sign up as a team? Is it, like, a separate stream of recruiting individuals versus groups? And which of the two performs better in the long run, in terms of reliability, effectiveness, and all of that?
I used to separate those two streams but, nowadays, I combine them. I email blasts everybody, and in my email blasts, I have two buttons. One says "Sign up to volunteer" -that takes the person to the volunteer registration website where it pre-checks the box that says, "I am an individual." Then, the second one says, "Create a group" - that does the same thing except it pre-checks the box, "I want to create a group," and that changes the form a little bit. That reduces overhead because you're only sending one email blast each time instead of two, and that works pretty well for me.
And what are the advantages of signing people up as a group - in terms of your volunteers - instead of just having the individual sign up or telling the group, "Go sign up, each and every one of you." What's the advantage of using the groups? I would guess that one of them would be that, maybe, you have a leader who coordinates them. What else is there?
The main advantage is load balancing because if you're waiting for their members to sign up - and that's the first time you're seeing where they're signing up - then you might not know if your shift is filled up until a week or two before the race. So, I'd say that's the main advantage. Then, that also reduces having to track that in Excel, sending a lot of emails and stuff. If your website only allows you to track individual signups, then some volunteer coordinators will have to track those groups in Excel to do this load balancing, and that will be a lot of extra work - emailing back and forth between the volunteer group leader and the volunteer coordinator, tracking things in a spreadsheet, and matching them up to the dashboard of your website. So in my opinion, it's much easier to just let the website handle that.
Can you explain a little bit further to our listeners about this concept of load balancing?
Yeah, absolutely. It's this idea that you want to make sure that your shifts are, kind of, evenly filled up. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. Number one, the mega shifts help a lot. If you have a bunch of small shifts, then you're gonna have a bunch of 100% and 0% in your volunteer report. When you start combining them, then you start getting the averages and you can, kind of, look at your report and see that, instead of "100% Friday packet pickup and 0% shirts," it says, "60%." So, you have a better idea of how your signups are doing for that particular shift. Another important thing is that you want to be able to look at your report and go, "Alright. A bunch of shifts is doing well. They're over 50%. But some of these are under 50% and my race is in two weeks. How do I make sure that everything gets filled up to, at least, a minimum level?" That is where you can do things like close your shifts that have over 50% and that will nudge people to sign up for your shifts that need more volunteers, which is really important, because what's the point of having a bunch of shifts at 100% if you have a bunch of shifts at 0%? That will create a crisis situation. It's better to have 50% across the board.
Right. Because, obviously, when you offer some choices, people will try and sign themselves up for the shift or for the area that they feel most excited about, I guess, and then they can be left with gaps. I think that's a super helpful tip for people. Earlier, you alluded that if you break down your volunteering areas into smaller buckets. So, you're basically creating silos and containers, right? Then, if a particular job is oversubscribed but the other job is completely empty, as you were saying earlier, there's going to be one big race expo bucket or something for volunteers where you drop everyone in there and, then, let the law of averages takes over. Basically, you're saying, "I have 70% of that big job filled, rather than having a bunch of 100%, 30%, 0%", and stuff - right?
Yeah. So that avoids a situation where somebody has, kind of, mentally decided that they want to do T-shirts but nobody wants to do packet pickup and you need to convince them to change on race day. If they've signed up for a mega shift - "Oh, I could be assigned to anything," - it helps with flexibility.
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Okay, now, let's get back to the episode!
Do you actually find that volunteers who want to come on to the site and sign up are particularly wedded to do one shift over another? So, if one shift is oversubscribed or you try - as you were saying earlier about load balancing - to, sort of, nudge them to do something else, would they just drop off and not sign up at all?
I get the impression that most are pretty flexible. I only get a few emails about, "Oh, hey, this shift's closed. Can I change to that shift? Can I sign up for that shift?" And when I get those emails, I usually let them into that particular shift because if they care enough to email about it, that's probably a big part of their motivation.
Right. And in terms of philosophy - I think this is a really important point also - for people starting out on this who are a little bit concerned about race day attrition and stuff, this mega shift concept also seems to matter to mitigate some of that, right? You're basically saying, "I'm going to recruit as many people as I can, drop them in big buckets, see who shows up on race day, and then split them up that way." Again, some areas are going to be fully manned. For others, I'm going to be scrambling around on race day to find people. Just wrapping up on this distinction between individuals who sign up and groups who sign up, do you have any idea - in terms of reliability - who tends to be more reliable? Would that be the individuals who sign up or the groups who, sort of, have, like, a different mentality behind them?
I think it goes back to what you were saying about the law of averages. Another good reason for big buckets is that your target number of volunteers is higher and you're more likely to get a certain minimum number because of the law of averages. If you have a shift of five or ten volunteers-- let's say you have a shift with a target number of five, it's possible that you can get zero volunteers to show up even though all the slots are filled, but if you have a target number of, like, 30, then you're definitely going to get some volunteers because you've diversified - it's not all going to be the same family of volunteers, it's not all going to be the same group of volunteers. So, I think that's a really important concept. And we should also talk about buffers at some point because that's even more important than big buckets for ensuring that you have volunteers and don't have shortfalls.
So how does that work, actually? Let's get into this now. How do buffers work in terms of how you approach things?
So, buffer is just a fancy word for padding your target number of volunteers on the website. The number that you should use, kind of, depends on how your website is set up. If your website allows people to create these big groups of volunteers and reserve a bunch of spots without their members signing up, you need a bit of a bigger buffer because some of those groups are going to flake. That's what I do on my website - that's how I have it configured for my particular races - and I use a 2x buffer. If you don't allow groups to reserve huge numbers of spots and create their own group and stuff like that before the race, then you can use a lower buffer. If it's all individual signing up, then you can do 1.5x or 1.25x.
Right. So basically, working backward from that, when you use a buffer of 2x, are you, sort of, saying that you're working on the assumption of a 50% no-show or something like that?
That isn't the worst case - I'd say that is pretty normal. I'd say 50% of volunteers that are on the website end up not showing up if you have those groups taking up some of the spots.
Is that, sort of, like, your typical no-show rate that you bake into things - 50%?
Okay. Wow, that's pretty disappointing, I guess, for people starting out and for people who are not familiar with this. I think it must ring true for many people who've done this many times. For people starting out, 50% is a big no-show rate to work with.
Yeah. And we should also talk a little bit at some point about how to pick target numbers of volunteers. Let's say you have a water station, like, how do you know how many volunteers you need for that water station? So, I have a good rule of thumb that works well for me. I try to put two volunteers per table, and this works for water stations, this works for packet pickups and T-shirt areas. Two volunteers per table - that's a good rule of thumb. So, if you have 10 tables at your water station, your target number of volunteers should be 20. Then, with 2x padding, you should have 40 slots on the website. Then, even if you have a shortfall, even if you only hit 50%, then you still have one volunteer per table and that water station will still run. The water station captain might have to do a little bit of extra work and get a little stressed out, but you'll still have a functional water station on race day.
Right. And the two people-- is there, sort of, like, one person in your mind doing something specific and the other person doing something else?
I think it's just the width of the table - like, on an eight-foot table, a person can set up four feet of cups, three layers of stacking sheets. And it happens to work out also for bib pickup - like, if you have an eight-foot table and two volunteers, you'll have two bins of bibs. You can do three volunteers per table if you're really scrunching them in. Same thing for T-shirts - it's about two per table, in my opinion.
And since we're on the numbers, outside of water stations, do you have, kind of, like, a rough rule of thumb on what size of volunteer force a race might need, depending on the race size and other parameters like distance and stuff?
Not really. I try to boil it down to shifts. So, you figure out how many water stations there are, you ask the operations person, "How many tables are there for each water station," then, you kind of compute all those little details, and then you add them up.
Okay. We were talking earlier about recruiting volunteers. And you shared with us your timetable in terms of when you start and the emailing schedule. Besides emailing people, do you work on any other channels - in terms of recruiting volunteers - like social media?
I haven't found social media to be effective which, kind of, surprises people. A couple of times, I had my marketing coworkers, different clients and companies put a link on their social media and a little tracker on the end of it to see who clicks it, and it just doesn't perform as well as some of the other methods.
What about paid ads - have you tried any of that? Like, maybe, running a Facebook ad to volunteers in your area or, like, retargeting people who already know about the race? Have you tried any of that? Does that work from the, sort of, evidence that you may hear from others as well?
I've also had bad luck with Facebook ads - I've put that on my list of things that don't really work. I just pulled up my list right now. Some of the other things I have is cold calling - that doesn't work well at all. I've tried hiring people to cold call before. Certain volunteer recruitment websites such as VolunteerMatch - even throwing up an event on Craigslist or Eventbrite - did not work well. These are some of the things that I've kind of tried over the years and they have made it onto my list of things that don't work particularly well.
About the email blasts that you mentioned earlier, do those go out to volunteers and prospective volunteers or do you also send that to people who have participated in the race in the past year? So, do you also target those people?
Yeah. So circling back to email for a second, email is great, I really like email because you can tell tens of thousands of people about the volunteer opportunity and barely bug them - like, a call can be really jarring. I mean, some people like calls - big 'relationship' people - but it can be really jarring because they have to, kind of, pause everything they're doing and pick up the phone. Even a text can be, kind of, higher priority than email. So, email is great. You can, kind of, plant the seed and tell thousands of people while barely bugging them. Then, the main people you want to send emails to are people that have volunteered at races in your county before - that can be your race, that can be another race from your company, like, a company master list for that county, that could be an email trade with fellow race production company in your county. Then, back to your question, it can also be productive to hit master runner list with email blasts too because, then, you're able to tap into, like, friends and family of runners - that's not going to be nearly as high a response rate as people that have volunteered before, but it can be helpful. Then, one thing on top of that is if you offer a free race incentive to your master runner lists, you will get a lot of signups - that is, kind of, the ace up my sleeve and back pocket kind of thing that I keep in mind. If it's race week and we're having trouble signing up volunteers - volunteer numbers are low - I will create a special group on the website, I will close all shifts except the shifts that I really need people for, and then I will send out that free race incentive with a link to sign up for those shifts.
And how does that work? Would that be, like, telling them, "You get a free signup if you volunteer or if a family member volunteers."? How does that work?
Yes. So yeah, anybody that clicks on the link can volunteer because, at that point, you're trying to get volunteers, so you definitely don't need to be picky about who exactly clicks the link. Logistically, in my opinion, it's best to offer a free race that's not in that year because that can get really complicated. You will want to do a future race because, then, you can take your time after the race, you can count who signs in, you can email a code, and then they can sign up online.
That is a really great advice if you're already at that stage where you have those mailing lists. If you don't, do you have any advice for people just starting out? Where do they begin building those lists?
That can be pretty rough. It can be pretty tough if you're doing a first-year race and you don't have a lot of contacts and stuff. Trade with other production companies - if you're able to network and get that. You can be, like, "Hey, can I get email blasts to people on your list? And once I build mine up, I'll give you a blast to people on mine." Another thing I'd do is I will hire a data-miner to just go on school websites, harvest email addresses, and start building the list that way. So, let's talk about the types of volunteer groups for a second. There are different types of, like, groups that volunteer - these are, kind of, the backbone of the volunteers. I ran the numbers this morning and 70% of volunteers at one of my races were in a group. The kinds of groups in the Southern California market that sign up to volunteer at these races are high school service clubs, Key Clubs, and Leo Clubs. Those are the groups that will sign up in large numbers for free and volunteer in races. Then, you can also get ROTC and high school sports teams if you start offering a donation. In my experience, those groups tend to be more motivated by donations. So, those are the kinds of groups that you want to be target with your data mining. You want to go on the school websites, look up the list of all the sports coaches, and try to build a list of email addresses from that.
Seeing how effective they end up being, would cold calling the coach or something work better for those particular groups?
I personally haven't had good luck with cold calls. I tried cold calling before. I hired somebody to cold call before. The ROI wasn't great. I don't recall if it was better or worse than getting email addresses. The thing about email addresses is they're persistent. If you get a list of numbers, you have to call that whole list to talk about your race. But if you get email addresses, you can add them to your email sending program and send the email blast whenever you want at just a click of a button.
Let's wrap up on recruiting. Let's touch a little bit on the website itself - like, the race website. How prominently should I advertise my volunteer program on the website? And in terms of the information that I collect from volunteers that sign up, what does that look like? What kind of information do I need to be asking people?
Well, I'm a little bit biased about putting volunteer links on race websites since I'm a volunteer coordinator. My advice is always going to be, "Make that super prominent. Make it just as prominent as the runner registration button. Right next to the runner registration button, have a volunteer registration button." I found what my clients usually do is they put it in a sub-menu - like, race day volunteer. When you click on that, they'll have a page that, kind of, talks about volunteering and has a photo. Then, they'll put links to the volunteer registration website, and that usually works. If you're struggling with your numbers, the more prominent you make that link, the better. And the less clicks you have between the button that goes to the volunteer signup website and the sign up to volunteer button, the better. So honestly, my personal advice is, like, you can probably even skip the page that's between the first button link and the volunteer registration website - you can just go directly to the volunteer registration website. And what was the second part of your question?
The question is, "What kind of information would you ask people on that volunteer registration website?"
So that's a great question. That kind of goes back to the idea that I was just talking about. You want to have as few steps between when they first visit the website and when they hit that signup button as possible. I've noticed that there are some websites out there that collect a ton of information - they collect the volunteers' addresses and the volunteers' birthdays. In my opinion, you can keep it much simpler than that. For some of these websites, they have to make a login - like, in my opinion, just keep it simple. You want the flowchart to be as smooth for the volunteers as possible. All you really need are their first name, last name, email address - I have them type it twice because if they mess up their email address, I really don't have a good way to contact them - and cell phone number, which I don't use very often, but it's good to collect it for the group leader. So, if there's a parking problem, the group leader can text all the volunteers, "Use a different parking lot." So, it can be useful to have that. And, then, get the group name - if there's a group leader - parent's signature, waiver signature, choice of shifts, and that's pretty much it. In my opinion, that's as complex as it needs to be.
Yeah. I mean, that's a very key rule. People who have run any kind of survey, form, or anything like that before know how to follow, exactly, those rules - "Have as few hurdles as possible. Only ask for the kinds of stuff that you actually are going to need." And definitely, for something like that, I completely agree that you don't need to put people through, like, signing up, creating accounts, and stuff - like, you want to make it as straightforward for people as possible. Now, moving on to training volunteers. I think you've alluded to the fact that - with the exception of, maybe, some of those captains that we were mentioning earlier - you don't really do super extensive training of volunteers before race day because you expect to be able to train them on race day. Is that the case? Or do you offer any, sort of, like, more formal training before race day with people?
Yeah, my particular style is everything is done on race day - it's, kind of, like, their first day at work, they show up, they check-in, and they get all the training they need on-site. I've seen other races and other volunteer coordinators try to email instructions and training to volunteers. I just personally have the impression that it might be information overload for them, so I try not to do that. I try to keep the volunteer instructions detailed, but focused on just getting them to the volunteer check-in.
Right. So you don't use any kind of, like, online groups, Facebook groups, or any of that stuff to basically bunch everyone together before race day to send them information or tell them, "Race day is in a few days. Are you guys ready?"
No. But that's a good segue. The contacts I have with the volunteers before the race-- they get a confirmation email when they sign up on the website and, then, around Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of race week, they get a volunteer instructions email which has a 'Click here to see the detailed maps and directions.' Then, they click that. I made this PDF. You can use Microsoft Word as the base and you can, kind of, cut and paste screenshots of maps into it and type up everything that they need to know to get to their shift - that's a really important part of all of this. The better the directions, the less phone calls you get on race morning, the smoother things will go. Those are basically the two contacts I have with them before the race. Then, after the race, I send a 'Thank you' email which we can talk about a little bit later if you want.
Yeah, absolutely. We're going to get into that. So, I'm just wondering, since you're collecting phone numbers alongside emails, have you thought about, perhaps, experimenting with text messaging - in terms of sending some of those - because people generally claim that text messages have higher open rates. It's just right there on your phone. And these days, you can put anything on a text message - links and everything. Have you tried any of that, perhaps?
I do text messaging, sometimes. If I'm one or two weeks out from a race and I see a lot of groups that haven't signed up their members yet, I have a form on my website that I can go to and it tells me all the phone numbers of people whose groups have less than 50% signups - they give me a little text message to cut and paste into my android.google.com or messages.google.com - and I will send one text message to group leaders with low signups because I need to know, like, "Hey, are you planning to attend? Or do you need to update your estimate? I need accurate estimates and information so that I know what shifts are short so that I can do load balancing."
Do you mass-text everyone through a, kind of, like, text messaging service, or are we talking, like, a few reminders to specific people that you just send manually?
I currently do it manually. In the future, I may switch to an automated way to do it. But sending emails that don't go to spam and sending text messages is technically complicated - it requires using an API and stuff like that.
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Okay, now, let's get back to the episode!
Moving on to race day - people show up - what does the briefing look like? Do you just bunch everyone up in, like, one big space and just try to get them all excited about the race, and then you split them up? How do you do it?
That's a good question. So when they arrive, they sign in. Step one - please sign in. My sign-in sheet has their shift code. All my shifts have codes, like, A1, A2, A3, and B1 - each letter is usually a location. Then, it also has the group name column. There'll be a group name column in case I'm giving donations or something and I need to track how many signed in from a group. There'll be a signature part where they sign the waiver - this is a second chance to capture the waiver besides the e-waiver on the website, which is really important for legal reasons. Step two - what T-shirt size. The five sizes of T-shirts I use are small, medium, large, extra-large, 2X - I do not do extra small anymore, I do not do 3X. Step three - please wait here, we'll take you to your assignment shortly. And I'll often have, like, snacks or food of some kind at the tents. Then, after that, back to your original question, there are two things you can do - you can either take them straight to where they need to go or you can wait for a bunch of them to gather, and then you can give a quick orientation. Sometimes, I will do this if a bunch of them arrive at the same time. That way, they're not waiting around at the tent forever. Sometimes, I will do this for packet pickups and for the finish line type of shifts. What I'll do is I'll gather 20, 30, 40 volunteers around, I'll go through my notes and I'll give them a quick lay of the land. If it's packet pickup, I'll be, like, "Alright, in case you've never done a race before, the runners enter here and, then, they pick up their packet here. They will pick up something called a bib - it's their ticket to the race. This is the race number - they pin it on the front of their shirt - it has a timing Chip." So, I go through all that - T-shirts, vendors, merchandise, and exits - so that they know the flow of the event. Other things that I might talk about are the food plan. We'll pass out snacks. If we're too slow, I'll mention, "Feel free to take a break and visit the tent." If we're having a meal, I'll mention that, "Okay, we're passing out tickets to go eat at this restaurant over here today or ordering pizza at this time." I'll let them know where the restroom is. I'll let them know what the break policy is - for my events, it's super chill - I'll just tell them, "Just make sure that your spot is covered when you take a quick break." It can be helpful to give an orientation like that. But if you're short on time, usually, if you skip that orientation, they will also be just fine. It's more of, like, a volunteer experience thing.
So there are a few things there that I want to touch on. So you mentioned waivers - is that, like, similar to the waiver that the participants might sign? Am I using a copy of that or is it different from the registration waiver that people sign?
It's very similar to the registration waiver. I happen to use a custom one. One of my clients went through an attorney and got a really nice, custom volunteer waiver created and gave me permission to use it. So that's what I use on my website, and that one is customized exactly to the volunteers - it adds some of my feedback on potential issues that I felt needed to be mentioned, so I really like that one. I think that one would be pretty bulletproof for my clients.
Okay. Next thing you mentioned there was shirt sizes. I gathered from your answer that you pre-order based on averages and, then, people come and pick up a shirt if it's still around. So you don't actually ask volunteers for their shirt size before race day - is that the case?
Yes, that's correct. So I mean, that can be a touchy subject because if you're collecting all of these shirt sizes, then the volunteer feels, like, "Oh, I typed in my shirt sizes. They should have my shirt size." But little do they know that half of the volunteers that sign up on the website aren't showing up. So, even if you try to order the sizes that are typed into the website, you're still going to have problems with sizing everybody correctly - it's still possible to run out of a size here or a size there. So like, we were talking earlier about the law of averages-- I figured out what the averages are and I just use those percentages for all my events, pretty much.
And then you, sort of, over-order to make sure that every volunteer gets a shirt that they can wear or you, sort of, order as many as you need and then, I guess, some people get disappointed?
Yes. So, I take my unpadded target number of volunteers - this is before the 2x - for the shirts and I multiply that by 25% to 40%, depending on what my client is willing to spend on extra T-shirts - that is how we make sure there's a buffer so that we have enough shirts for everybody. And keep in mind, when you're deciding on this buffer - because you have five sizes or however many sizes you're using - you have to guarantee that you don't run out of specific size. The number of sizes you have and the number of check-ins you have - like, for each one of those - increases the buffer you need. If you offer more sizes and you want to guarantee you don't run out of one of the five sizes, you need a higher buffer than if you're just offering one size.
And last thing - from what you were saying there that I picked up on - is check-in. So check-in, generally, these days, is getting, I guess, a lot more technologically involved. So you get things like dynamic bib assignment and all kinds of stuff, right? So people do check-in in different ways. Some people have everything pre-packaged into, like, a little envelope that they hand out. And to save up on bibs and all that stuff, other people just use, like, dynamic bib assignment, which is a fairly new technology. Do you find that volunteers can clear that hurdle of complexity even with, like, a 30-minute briefing? Like, how do you manage that?
Yes, that's a great point. So in my opinion, registration is the most complex area for a volunteer to volunteer in - it has the most complex training - and I think that is the limit of complexity that they can handle - like, you can fit a training for that into the 30-minute briefing. Dynamic has made it more complicated because, now, they are working with devices - they have to scan certain things - and things can happen to those devices. Like, the battery gets low, you accidentally back out of the program, you end up on the screen where you're picking the races and you pick the wrong race - that adds complexity as well. But in conclusion, I think that volunteers can handle packet pickup with a good training.
Okay, great. And circling back to food and drink-- I mean, obviously, you need to keep your volunteers well-fed - you want them to be happy on race day. What kinds of food and drink have you found from experience work best, both in terms of keeping volunteers happy and also, like, being logistically good choices to distribute and keep people on their feet on race day. And also, in terms of amount, sort of, like, how do you provision for how much food and drink that people will need and what types?
So I do give more weight to the logistics because a lot of my clients are on a budget. For my clients that have big budgets, what they'll do is they'll order catering - that's extremely expensive - which is, like, $10 per volunteer or something. But obviously, that's going to be the best food, that's going to be the least headache. Those are the kinds of companies that will especially hire people to prepare all this food the night before, and then they'll specially hire people to drive it to your event at, like, 3 or 4 AM on race morning. So that is, kind of, the top-tier service. If the volunteer coordinator or the race is in charge of it and they don't want to hire a catering company, then you need to be more logistically-focused and budget-focused. So what I'll do is, for snacks, I will go to Vons - you can also go to Costco or something like that - and just buy a variety of snacks - salty snacks like chips, some cookies, and circus-animal type of snacks. They have those, like, Fig Newtons type of bars - you can buy some of those granola bars. So, that takes care of the snacks. The main shifts that need snacks are the expo and packet pickup shifts. Race day - you don't need as many snacks because the volunteers can snack on finish line food - that's another big one. I recommend that you tell your finish line coordinators not to try to hoard the finish line food from the volunteers, especially if it's like a long shift, if they work at a marathon or something, because that's a really awkward situation. If you have volunteers working an eight-hour shift at the finish line at your marathon, they're surrounded by all this food, they're hungry, and you're trying to have your staff members say, "No, you can't eat this food," like, at the end of the day, you got to make sure to feed your volunteers. For race day, I do bring breakfast to the volunteer tent. I'll do a light breakfast. I'll go to Vons and buy some donuts and muffins. Lately, with the pandemic, I've been doing individually packaged stuff - like, there's this package of bear claws that you can buy that is individually packaged. So, that can be really good. And then, for Expo meals - like, full-on meals - in addition to the snacks, I tend to order pizza, that's logistically and budget-wise the easiest because A) they deliver, B) it works out to be, like, $2 per volunteer. So that can be a very economical and a very convenient option. And then, for water, typically, we just do water bottles at the start, finish, and Expo. And at the water stations, obviously, that's taken care of.
So is eight hours - you were mentioning back there - the top end of how long the volunteer shift should be to keep people productive and safe and all that?
In my opinion, yes. I think if you make volunteer shifts longer than eight hours, you're not going to get many signups, so I try to avoid that. I only do that if I really need to for 'volunteer numbers' reasons and, also, if I had experience with that shift being long before and it's gone all right. So at a couple of my events, the volunteers really like the finish line of a big race, so they'll be fine with volunteering for eight hours. I've also done a survey before - I did a survey with the volunteers. I asked them what their ideal shift time was - I was expecting them all to say, like, four hours or less - and over half of them replied four hours or more, I think. So it's okay to go a little bit on the longer side - like, it doesn't have to be just four hours or less, like, you can do a six-hour shift because, I think, a lot of these volunteers are trying to knock out service hours and they want to do it in one go. But you also have to be cognizant of that upper limit.
Okay, interesting idea. I'm not very familiar with this concept of service hours. But basically, people have certain credits of hours that they need to run through, I guess, right? So then, they'll say, "Yeah, I want to do, like, a five or six-hour shift," so that they can get through those.
Since we are actually on that, you were mentioning something about certificates or something earlier. So basically, people who go into that, they need to come away with some kind of certificate to prove that they've done the hours. Can you explain that concept to us a little bit more?
Yes. So volunteers will sometimes need you to either sign a paper to verify that they have volunteered. You'll put your contact information. That way, their school can follow up if they have any suspicions about it or anything. Another way to do it is to generate a verification letter, which is the way I chose to do it through my website - I've found this as a good process to automate. So I'll send out my 'Thank you' email, and then I'll have a link there that says, "Click here to generate a volunteer service verification letter," to request a letter, they'll click on the link, they'll type their name, they'll pick their shift, it'll generate this nice letter - it has the race logo, it has a screenshot of my signature, it looks really official - they can print that out, and they're all set on their volunteer verification.
Okay, great. So before we wrap up race day, do you do any debriefing sessions after the race - like, collecting feedback from people and asking, "How did it all go? Did you guys have any issues? Did you find the training insufficient for you to be able to do your job?" Do you do any of that?
Yes. So I haven't really created a survey form before except for the one I mentioned about the volunteer hours. But what I do is in my 'Thank you' letter, I say, "If you have any feedback at all about how we can improve your experience, please email me." And something very surprising I found is that almost nobody ever emails me any feedback. So, either I'm doing all right or, maybe, they're just trying to knock out hours and they're not super invested in the process. I don't know why, but I almost never get any feedback of any kind.
Are you saying that you suspect that might be because people don't give feedback, or they're not particularly keen to spend the time to write back, or you think that, generally, things are going great?
It's probably a combination of things going fine to the point where they're not upset enough to give a specific feedback about that. And also, they're not super invested in the process. Like, they're just trying to knock out some hours - that'd be my theory. That's just my opinion, though.
So you mentioned the 'Thank you' letter - that's always very important in showing appreciation to everyone, not just volunteers who help support and pull a race together. Let's start with the 'Thank you' letter. What goes into that? What do you put in the 'Thank you' letter?
So in my 'Thank you' email, I thank them for volunteering, of course. It's got the race logo, and it's got a big 'Thank you' graphic in it. I put 'Click here for verification letter' to request a verification letter. I ask them for feedback. I will often include links to some other upcoming races in case you're interested in volunteering for those. And if your race needs to recruit water station captains, you can optionally add that. In my experience, the absolute best time to recruit them is through that 'Thank you' email.
Do you go so far as to, maybe, publicize that to show your appreciation - maybe through a press release or something, saying, "The Los Angeles Marathon thanks the support of X hundreds of volunteers that took part in Sunday's race." Will you do something like that?
I think, sometimes, my marketing coworkers will put appreciation posts on social media and things like that, but it's not necessarily a part of my flowchart or anything. I think the 'Thank you' email, kind of, ticks that box for me because I'm reaching out to every person that volunteered and I'm sending them a 'Thank you'.
And beyond that 'Thank you' email, do you do anything, sort of, until next year's race to stay in touch with the people who volunteered? Or is it, basically, "Thank you very much. We really appreciate you," and then you reach out to them again, like, 16 weeks before the event and tell them, "Volunteering is open again for next year"?
No. I don't do too much outreach in the offseason unless it's to tell them about a volunteer opportunity for another event - mainly, because I don't want to bug them too much. I guess you could do something like creating a newsletter that just, kind of, talks about volunteering in general, but I haven't tried that. In general, I try to ping them as little as possible.
Yeah, I get that. You're like a light-touch person. I actually think, sometimes, this ends up being more effective. Sometimes, people - I would fall in that category - tend to be a little bit, like, too eager to stay in touch, get a feel of how the volunteers are doing after the race, thank them again, and stuff. But you need to understand that some of them are really there just for the hours, as you said, right? I mean, some of them are there for the donation and some of them probably won't appreciate being bugged too often, I guess, after the race, particularly after you've shown your appreciation. So Tim, I think that's the end of the things that I had in mind to talk about, and it's been super helpful and full of tips. How can people reach out to you if they have any follow-up, if they want to explore further what you're doing with TitanVolunteers, or if they just want to reach out and say, "Thank you for all the great advice you've offered in this podcast"?
I'd be very excited to talk to people. I almost never get to talk shop. This is just, kind of, stuff I've reverse engineered and figured out over the course of a couple of years. I've noticed volunteer coordinators can be, kind of, insular - they have their clients and they don't really talk to each other - at least in my area. So I'd love it if people contact me and just let me know, like, "Oh, hey, I really agree with this," or "I disagree with this," or "What do you think of this." Anyway, my name is Tim Bradley and my email address is email@example.com. And of course, please feel free to check out my website, TitanVolunteers.com.
Awesome. And in terms of the stuff you do with Titan, do you also offer, like, yourself up as a volunteer coordinator, I guess, for races in South California or beyond that?
Sure, I'd be willing to discuss business with people and possibly work for different races. Lately, I've been focusing on bigger races in Southern California. So just keep in mind that's going to be what I'm comfortable with and what my main focus is, but I'll be willing to discuss if needed.
Okay, awesome. I'd like to thank you again for a very tip-packed hour on recruiting and managing volunteers. Thanks a lot for taking the time to come on to the podcast.
Thank you, Panos.
And I want to thank everyone listening in and we'll see you guys on the next episode!
I hope you enjoyed this episode on recruiting and managing volunteers with my guest, McCourt Foundation volunteer coordinator, Tim Bradley.
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