LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023
How to Find, Train and Retain Race Volunteers
A step-by-step guide to finding, training and retaining volunteers for your race - for the long run!
One of the most important aspects of running a race is being able to find race volunteers, train them and retain them for the long run. It is one of those things that can often make an event and more than often break it.
So why do so many race directors struggle to get volunteering right?
The short answer? Wrong attitude and poor preparation. If you want to make a success of volunteering you need to put in the time and always be prepared to give something in return.
In this 5-step guide we'll show you how to transform the way you find and manage volunteers, from planning through recruitment to race-day deployment and tips for improving your long-term volunteer retention.
So let's get started!
Step 1: Putting together a race volunteer plan
Before you even go out and try to recruit volunteers, you'd want to have a good idea of how may you will need, in what roles and how the whole team is going to come together.
The first thing you'll need is a volunteer organizational chart. This should have your Head at the top, then Team Captains under that and so on all the way to individual volunteer roles at the bottom. The number of layers will depend on the complexity of your race, but just the three (Head - Team Captains - Volunteers) is usually sufficient for most events.
Here's a rough example we put together in SmartDraw of what a volunteer org chart would look like :The Head of Volunteers is a member of your core team and your main go-to person. They will liaise with the volunteer team and be responsible for their training. If you catch yourself having to reach out directly to anyone under them, you can be sure something isn't working!
I know what some of you are thinking at this stage.
You're probably thinking you're only organizing a small race and an org chart is an overkill. Perhaps you're right. However, here's some things you may not have considered:
- An org chart provides both you and everyone in your team clarity on who's accountable for what and who reports to whom
- An org chart is a great document to distribute to other stakeholders, like your local community or first aid & rescue liaisons, and can save you time from having to lay everything out verbally multiple times
- An org chart can add tons of value to your risk assessment document by providing quick references to key people in your volunteer team
- You can use your org chart as a handy contacts book to keep each member's details and role in one place
After you're done with your org chart and have a good idea of the total number of volunteers you're going to need, it's time to start recruiting.
When putting together your volunteer org chart, make sure you include a 10%-20% flex for contingencies that will arise on or before race day. Allocate jobs that need the most training in advance to your most reliable volunteers, then invite volunteers over and above the numbers you think you'll need to join on race day and allocate roles on the fly, as needs arise - because arise they will!
Step 2: Finding volunteers
When it comes to recruiting race volunteers, besides the odd person signing up here and there, you'll want to focus your energy on recruiting teams rather than individuals. And there's two groups, in particular, you'd want to focus on: charities/volunteer organizations and amateur sports clubs.
Working with groups is a great way to leverage not only numbers but existing team relationships and structures. Remember: people in these groups know each other outside your race and may have worked on several other volunteering projects before.
Charities and non-profit organizations
Charities and non-profits in your area should be the starting point for all your volunteer needs. Provided you help them with their cause in some shape or form, they should be willing to help you with your race.
If you are officially partnering with a charity for your race and raising funds for them, chances are some volunteer headcount will be part of your deal with them. You may still need to provide funds towards volunteer logistics and other costs, but that is really the bare minimum you would have to contribute in any case.
If you don't have a charity partner, you can still try reaching out to other local community organizations for help. For example, if your race brings visitors to a small town or village, you may want to ask the local parish council or tourist board for some volunteer support. If they win when your race wins, they'd want to help your efforts succeed.
Amateur sports clubs, such as running or cycling clubs, also have a strong interest in promoting local races and have one more reason to want to get involved: free race entries.
When approaching sports clubs, start by identifying all the relevant clubs in your area and then contact the club secretary laying out what your race is about and what you're willing to offer the club in exchange for their volunteer contribution. Offer some free or discounted entries and try to steer the discussion towards a group deal (club puts forward X volunteers, you give club Y) instead of individual incentives for members. Clubs can figure out the best way to whip up the numbers for you.
If your event is not-for-profit and helps support a cause or charity, you can also turn to local high schools and colleges for volunteers.
High schools and other educational institutions have a long tradition of encouraging pupils towards community service and many high school clubs make volunteering a key focus of their activity. These clubs are often very enthusiastic about events they get involved in and extremely well organized about everything they do, so they make excellent volunteer teams.
If you are based in the US and your local high school has a Beta Club or leadership team, reach out to them first for support. Outside of the US, student club programs are a little less structured so you may have to check with your local school for available volunteering initiatives.
Facebook groups can be a life-saver when it comes to recruiting particularly last-minute volunteers.
In many ways, reaching out to Facebook groups is the digital equivalent of reaching out to local sports clubs so a lot of the same rules would apply. You can look for local community groups in the area where your race will be held, runners and other sports groups, or ideally groups combining both a sports interest with a local footprint (e.g. "Exeter runners group").
Do, however, mind to read through any group rules or notify group admins before posting to make sure your post is in line with group posting policy. Usually, if you go through the admins first, they should be ok with it.
Making volunteers feel appreciated starts on recruitment. So why not give individual volunteers a shout-out with a Facebook or Twitter mention the minute they sign up?
Step 3: Training volunteers
Most work volunteers work is not rocket science. Nevertheless, coordinating a large number of people to show up for a race and work together safely and effectively takes a bit of preparation.
The good news is you've already got an org chart and that should help a lot with the training process.
Ideally you will only have to instruct one person, your volunteer team Head, with everything they need to instruct team Captains with everything they need to instruct individual volunteers. Instructions should trickle down, feedback should trickle up and so on - until everyone's confident with their role in the chain.
It is important to keep in mind some best-practice rules during this process:
- Start early: Always keep in mind that your volunteers are enthusiastic part-timers, not dedicated professionals. This means they have lives to run and may not be able to all coordinate at the same time or at short notice. So, the earlier you start the training the better.
- Stay on top of the process with regular updates: As the training progresses, make sure you get feedback from your team Head (and they from Captains etc). It's important to be confident training stays on track. If there are any issues, make sure they're quickly escalated and resolved.
- Meet up a couple of times before the race: Your org chart aside, you should plan a couple of group meet-ups with your entire volunteer team before the race. It's good that everyone knows each other, gets to see the broader picture and is made to feel part of a team.
- Consider investing in a volunteer management platform: As the complexity of your volunteer planning increases, managing the process through spreadsheets can quickly become a nightmare and expose you to errors. Have a think whether specialized volunteer management software could provide a better alternative.
In terms of things the training should cover, keep it goal-based and think of the following:
- Does everyone know where they need to be on race day and at what time ?
- Does everyone have contact details for people they will be interacting with on race day (their Captain, other team members, as well as the RD as a last resort)?
- Does everyone feel sufficiently equipped/informed to carry out the task assigned to them?
- Does everyone know how to escalate issues they cannot resolve themselves?
If every one of you volunteers is confident of having answers to all of the above at the end of training, your training has been a success.
Step 4: Deploying volunteers
If you've done everything else right up to this point, deploying your volunteers on race day should be a doddle. It should all be in the training. So much so that we're not going to spend another minute on this topic :)
Step 5: Retaining volunteers
Keeping your volunteers happy and engaged after your event is probably not going to be very high on your priorities. That is an understandable, but fatal, mistake to make. Whatever perks you may have used to attract volunteers to your race, it takes careful long-term engagement to keep them coming back.
Luckily, it shouldn't take a lot of your time to keep volunteers happy - nor is it rocket science to do so. Volunteers, like anyone contributing their time and effort to a cause, want to feel appreciated and valued.
The first thing you should do after you race is over is write a nice thank-you letter to your volunteer force. Make this is as detailed, specific and personal as possible, mentioning every team or organization that may have contributed to the effort. When finished, publish the letter in the local paper or wherever else you volunteers are likely to see it, including your website and social media.
If you can afford it, go out of your way to offer your volunteers or contributing organizations a special plaque or other memento commemorating their participation in your race. Do not be surprised if this ends up in prominent display - that's how important (and rare) recognition is to volunteer organizations!
After you're done expressing your appreciation for your volunteers' contributions, put some effort into keeping up team spirit throughout the year. Create a dedicated Facebook group for your volunteers and link the group to your race Facebook page. Then follow the suggestions in this article on how to engage and communicate with volunteers in your group.
Remember: Treat your volunteers with respect and gratitude - without them your race would not be possible!