Many associations and non-profits rely on volunteers to help plan conferences and events. But did you know that event planning has been ranked as one of the most stressful jobs? Obviously it should not be compared to life-threatening jobs like military and first-responder but there are a lot of tasks to manage, a lot of deadlines to meet and a lot of opinionated investors to please. What’s more is that the volunteers probably haven’t worked together before, many have never planned an event and they may have conflicting priorities. But if you can relieve some of the pressure and minimize challenges for your volunteers, they are a great source of ideas and energy. So here’s a few things to consider about putting event committees together and setting volunteers down the right path.
1. Get to know the volunteer.
Knowing a little about what brings the volunteer forward will help you identify what role or tasks would be well-assigned. Find out what interests them, what they hope to get out of their volunteer time, what strengths and skills they bring to the table, what kind of time commitment they can make, etc.
2. Know what roles need to be filled.
Too many volunteers can be as unproductive as too few. And volunteers without direction or purpose will be ineffectual and feel unrewarded. So think about what needs to be done – look at the outcomes you want to achieve and what steps will get you there – and define specific roles. Ideally you should have a short job description that summarizes what the individual will be responsible for achieving or actioning, but at least be able to articulate duties and expectations to each volunteer.
3. Provide clear instruction.
Create task lists and timelines for volunteers so they know what do and ensure they understand dependencies and resources available to them. Don’t be afraid of detail – many volunteers have never planned an event so they will appreciate clear and concise guidance on steps to follow and how to accomplish tasks. (But remember to be flexible and open to ideas and different approaches when they come up.) Being upfront about timelines and giving people plenty of advance notice will let volunteers work event responsibilities into their own calendars. Regular follow-up and reminders about approaching deadlines will be helpful but be respectful of your volunteers’ time and other priorities.
4. Set a meeting schedule and stick to it as closely as possible.
Find a time that works for the majority of people, for a majority of the time, and set recurring meetings up front. There will be times when people have to miss a meeting but if it is in their calendar early, they will be better able to plan around it. Unless too many decline for a given meeting to be productive, try to hold meetings even if there will be an absentee member or two.This will help planning to stay on-track and show respect for the time others set aside in their calendar. And with the busy lives we lead these days, finding a time on short notice when everyone is available won’t have great odds so you might as well stick with Plan A.
5. Identify who the voice of authority is.
Volunteers bring great ideas and varied perspective to discussions. Giving everyone a voice when brainstorming or designing is great but how many times have you asked for restaurant ideas and no-one in the group wants to make a decision? Someone on the committee needs to be able to call discussions to a close and either make a decision or facilitate a vote. Identify who this is and ensure others know where this authority is placed.
6. Make use of technology for sharing and collaborating.
The cloud is a great place for committees to work. Online project management tools offer task lists, milestone tracking, file sharing, and centralized communication. There are free platforms like Asana and Trello, and low-cost platforms like Basecamp and Teamwork PM, that offer different structures and features. Or you may opt to use cloud storage, like Google Drive or Dropbox, to share working files and handle communication through email. Regardless, give committees a virtual workspace and easy access to the tools and data.
Volunteers can be a great resource for planning events as they bring interesting perspectives and ideas, but a lack of experience and direction can increase an already stressful job. For both of you. But a few extra steps like matching the job to the person, setting clear expectations, and providing an orderly working environment will help everyone thrive.