Essential Tips for Volunteer Coordinators
Getting people to volunteer for your race, while guaranteeing an excellent volunteer experience, isn't easy.
But there are some things you can do to help improve your chances of success that have been borne from my many years managing thousands of volunteers as volunteer coordinator for the Los Angeles Marathon and other high-profile events.
At 16 weeks out, you should work on getting the volunteer registration website created. At 11 weeks out, you should send your first email blast. Send up to 4 more email blasts, spaced 2-3 weeks apart. You should aim to fill 10% of your volunteer spots every week starting at week 10, until you are at 100%.
Email is king. You can tell thousands of people about the volunteer opportunity, multiple times, with the click of a button, and barely bug them.
Keep a list of volunteers that have volunteered at your races for each county. Previous race volunteers are by far going to be your best source of volunteers. And keep plenty of sub-lists: group leaders that like donations, specialized groups such as massage therapists and radio operators, etc.
If needed, do email trades with other event production companies in your area. If needed, do one email blast to your master runner list, to recruit friends and family of runners who may be interested.
Completely new to the area? You might have to do some data mining. Start visiting hundreds of school websites and taking down the email addresses of high school service clubs, sports teams, and ROTCs. Start building your list. This task can potentially be delegated to a subcontractor.
Are you two weeks out and your numbers are low? Time to start dipping into the pocketbook a bit. Offer a donation to volunteer groups that is tied to the number of volunteers that sign in, and do a dedicated email blast about this that specifically mentions the amount.
Need to fill a bunch of Friday expo spots and all your high school groups are in school and can't sign up? Do an email blast to your master runner list and offer a free race in exchange for volunteering. If you offer a good race to a big enough list, you can get 150 signups last minute from something like this.
Make sure to offer a free future race, as it would be a bit too complex to try to tally up who attended and offer codes for a same weekend race.
Mega shifts are the way to go. So for example, instead of having a packet pickup shift, a T-shirt distribution shift, and a volunteer check in shift, combine all these into one shift called expo.
Combining small shifts into mega shifts provides numerous benefits:
- Your reports (your list of shifts) are more concise.
- Your reports are more useful, since instead of seeing 100% 100% 0%, you see the average of these shifts, for example 70%.
- Volunteers are more flexible and willing to be reassigned.
- Bigger shifts are diversified and less likely to get one family that signs up for all the spots then the entire family doesn't show up, leaving you with zero volunteers.
- There are less unique volunteer instructions emails to send out.
I suggest assigning and training your volunteers onsite. Keep it simple for them. Their only job is to read your volunteer instructions email, park, and get to the volunteer check in table. You and your staff will handle everything from there.
Keep an eye on your shifts and how much they are filling up. Is it 4 weeks out and you still have a bunch of shifts below 50%? Time to close the shifts above 50% to force signups for the lower shifts.
For a large marathon with point-to-point course, 50% volunteers at start line and 50% volunteers at finish line is quite do-able. 0% volunteers at start line and 100% volunteers at finish line is a crisis.
Use a good volunteer registration website. This is your chance to automate volunteer coordinator tasks and save a lot of time. It's the difference between spending hours emailing group leaders, suggesting shifts, and tracking things in Excel, or just letting your website handle it.
Even little things add up. Does your website have a "duplicate event" button that duplicates last year's event and change all the shift dates? Does your website generate signed verification letters for volunteers that request these? Do you have to add and edit each shift one at a time or can you mass add and edit shifts?
As the owner and programmer of a volunteer registration website, I of course recommend my website, TitanVolunteers.com. We offer first event free. But any website that has similar features and efficiencies will also work. The goal is to spend less time emailing and more time volunteer coordinating.
How many volunteers will sign up and not show up? In my experience, that number can be pretty high.
I recommend a x2 buffer for websites that allow volunteers to create their own groups and reserve spots for them based on estimates. You can go a little lower if your website is only individual signups, x1.5 or x1.25.
Don't forget to follow up with your groups, especially if they have pledged a certain number of volunteers but those volunteers haven't signed up yet. In my experience, volunteers signing up is the #1 predictor of whether a volunteer will actually attend.
I have a tool that emails groups with less than 50% signups to remind them to get their group members to sign up, which I use a couple times, and I will also send a text message a week or two before to groups with below 50% signups.
Still collecting volunteer shirt sizes via a website and ordering based on that? Let's think about this for a second...
One, shirts need to be ordered well in advance of the race, sometimes months out. Two, if as discussed in the previous section half of volunteers who sign up don't show up, then these numbers aren't going to be accurate anyway.
Nowadays I ignore the volunteer database and I order shirts based on percentages: small 26%, medium 28%, large 23%, extra large 13%, 2X 10%.
How much of a buffer should we use for shirts? I take my target # of volunteers (unpadded), and I multiply by 25% to 40%, depending on race budget. Keep in mind, the more shirt sizes you offer, the more of a buffer you need in order to guarantee you don't run out of a size.