I once volunteered for a large cultural festival, the kind that recruits over 1000 volunteers for over a week’s worth of events. My first shift was for a film screening, and as a general volunteer I was asked to stand to the side of the theatre lobby to answer guest questions. I was game — I spent years working in the hospitality industry, and I love assisting people.

During my four hour shift, I received two questions, despite my best efforts to welcome and engage everyone arriving. As I stood there in my festival t-shirt, smiling at everyone who walked by, I realized that my real role was to be a human banner for the festival in a theatre already crowded with other messaging (popcorn over here! IMAX to the left! New Tom Cruise movie opening soon!). I was the fifth of at least eight stationary volunteers who guests would pass by before entering the screening. I started to ask myself why the festival couldn’t have just bought a sign instead of asking for four hours of my time.

“The most important thing you can do today is let your volunteers know how valuable their time is to you, your organization, and its mission.”

Volunteer Time is Not Free

In this instance, you could say that I was valuable as a volunteer because my labour and presence were free. But volunteer time is not free — there are the costs of training and supervision, the opportunity cost of allocating time, and the threat of losing a volunteer altogether if they are not connected to their role. If your volunteers don’t feel valued, needed, or acknowledged, they’re going to be less engaged and less inclined to help out your organization in the future. One of the easiest ways to make your volunteers feel undervalued is to let them sit around and wait for instructions (let’s call this dead time), or assign them to low-impact tasks and activities with no obvious connection to your mission (let’s call this wasted time). Luckily, there are two commandments to help guide effective and efficient management of volunteer time:

  1. Assign roles according to who your volunteers are and what motivates them.
  2. Value their time as if you’re paying for it.

Fit the role to the volunteer

The motivations and interests of volunteers are almost as diverse as volunteers themselves. I was motivated to give my time to the cultural festival because I wanted to be a part of the buzz and excitement, I wanted to interact with people, and most importantly, I wanted to be useful. When I didn’t feel useful, I thought my time was being wasted. Volunteer roles should fit the motivations of the volunteer, so people who are more interested in meeting others are given roles they can perform in groups, and people who are more interested in organizing can work in roles with greater responsibility. When a role is not that exciting (say, stuffing envelopes or standing in a lobby), it’s your job to communicate to the volunteer how their actions will have an impact.

If you can, set aside time to speak with every new volunteer to get to know them, their interests, and their motivations. If you’re running recruitment for a large event, include checkbox questions that ask which aspects of volunteering your applicants are most interested in, and why they are signing up to volunteer. Timecounts makes it easy to refer to this information when assigning shifts, but you can also just be sure to keep your signup spreadsheet open when allocating shifts in your schedule.

Value volunteer time as if you’re paying for it

The impact of your volunteers is more important than the number of your volunteers. Because there are costs associated with recruiting, supervising, and allocating volunteer time, you can think of it in business terms as the importance of your ‘return on investment’ (ROI). In short, you should get more out of your volunteers than you put in.

One of the ways to measure the ‘output’ of a volunteer program is to consider the value of volunteer time. The Independent Sector assessed the value of volunteer time at $23.07 US an hour in August of 2015.

To start managing volunteer time effectively, start considering how much it would cost if your organization had to pay for volunteer labour. For example, my theatre shift was four hours, and there were two shifts a day for the ten days of the festival. The cost calculation would look like this:

$23.07 x 4 = $92.28 per shift

x 2 shifts a day = $184.56 a day

x 10 days = $1845.60.

It would have been more worthwhile for the festival to pay $150 for a banner to stand in the theatre lobby throughout the ten days of the festival instead of allocating over $1800 worth of volunteer time to occupy the same space. That volunteer time might have been better spent doing public outreach to pull more people into the festival.

So what does it look like to manage volunteers as if you’re paying for them? We’ve rounded up a few tips from our collective experience at Timecounts to get you started.

Improving impact at events

  • Schedule people to greet and sign-in volunteers. A lot of dead time can happen between the time volunteers arrive and when they actually start helping. Schedule someone to check-in volunteers, and provide any information needed about their upcoming shifts, the venue layout, and their team leaders. If there’s a delay between arrival time and start time, having someone there to explain and communicate with your volunteers will counter any frustration they might feel with waiting.
  • Create a list of things that volunteers can do if start times are delayed. Examples include posting about the event on social media, learning about that day’s schedule, and helping to organize the break room. If the wait is longer than 15 minutes, let the volunteers know so they can go and come back if needed. Ice breakers and get-to-know-you games are also a great idea to kill time and start creating a sense of community.
  • Schedule floaters, and/or create ‘on-call’ shifts. Floaters and on-call volunteers help provide peace of mind and essential backup in case things get busy, while allowing you to schedule only the minimum of volunteers needed in other roles. For example, two floaters can start the evening helping at registration, and then coat check, and then help bus tables later at night.
  • Check in with your volunteers throughout their shifts. Ask (or notice) if they’re too busy, or not busy enough. Don’t be afraid to ask volunteers if they mind being reassigned or leaving early if they are not needed in their current position.
  • As the busy periods of your event die down, give volunteers the choice to stay or go home early, without being penalized (some events offer ticket incentives per shift or hours worked — if your volunteers showed up for a shift and were not needed, they should still receive their promised incentives).
  • Always question whether you need that many volunteers — can the same task be performed by two volunteers, instead of three? Can you more effectively replace a volunteer with a sign, a banner, or a staff member? Will rotating shifts of volunteers, instead of one big group, work just as well?

Improving impact everyday

  • Talk to your ‘everyday’ volunteers about what roles they feel most excited about. Create an action plan so they can start getting engaged in the tasks they’re interested in, even if there are no open positions at the moment.
  • Create job descriptions (when appropriate), with detailed descriptions of roles and responsibilities, so volunteers know what is expected of them when they show up each day.
  • Provide training, including suggestions for ways they can contribute during downtime (much like restaurant employees have side duties)
  • Have jobs and tasks ready for when they arrive. Create an ongoing task board for regular office volunteers, so they don’t have to wait for your instructions.
  • Don’t be afraid to give volunteers the choice of leaving early, if all of their tasks are done for the day.
  • Celebrate their achievements and make time to connect. While it’s important to have effective volunteers, you also want happy volunteers. Many people get involved with organizations to meet others and feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. So don’t forget to thank your volunteers, host appreciation events, and introduce them to others. Step away from the schedule every now and again and take the time to strengthen your community.

If you cannot start any of the above tomorrow, the most important thing you can do today is let your volunteers know how valuable their time is to you, your organization, and its mission. If you have more volunteers than needed, think about setting up a volunteer pool to keep them engaged in other ways.

How Timecounts can help

Volunteer time may seem free, but it is incredibly valuable to your organization and your volunteers. At Timecounts, we know how essential volunteers are. We created an entire platform to help organizers better schedule, manage, and communicate with their community. If you’re having trouble scheduling multiple overlapping shifts and positions in spreadsheets or using other tools, Timecounts can help.

Communication and information are at the heart of volunteer management and Timecounts. The more you know about your volunteers, the easier it is to acknowledge them, and the happier and more effective your supporters will be.

Post written by Danielle Leduc