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Getting and Keeping Volunteers

By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102, Langley, British Columbia

June 2017 - Recruiting, training, and keeping volunteers returning year after year is a task that seems to be getting harder. Whether you run an air show, a fly-in, or a food bank, it is increasingly difficult to attract enthusiastic, willing volunteers.

Having been both a volunteer and volunteer coordinator for both large and small fly-ins and air shows, I see the same dedicated people returning year after year with little new blood entering to replace those who retire due to age and health issues. What do you do when your existing volunteers start to “age out of the system”? Where do you find the youngsters to augment or replace them?

Look at your leadership team. Are the chairpersons actively involved in recruiting and training new staff? Do they have a second in command who can take over in the event of accident or illness? Are they active during the lead-up to the event, organizing their equipment needs, or do they just show up on the day of, expecting to find a trained and expert staff?

If you use an application form, take a good look at it. Current thinking on the volunteer application form is that less is more. In other words, keep the application brief and to the point; if it won’t fit on a single page, then it is too long. Unless there are children or security issues involved, there is little need for multipage applications, references, or police checks. Keep it simple.

Volunteers, like any family member, need to feel valued and that their contribution of time and effort is appreciated. They need to feel that they are part of the team, not just a warm body who hands out water bottles or directs patrons to the parking lot. They are a vital member of your team. Volunteer teams are often led by highly experienced members who have done the job for many years and take ownership of their area. These teams can be reluctant to allow a new person to join in with those who already know the routine. The newbie wants to join in, and if he or she can’t, they won’t come back. Never put new volunteers out alone. Always match them up with veterans for the mentoring opportunity.

The “feeding and watering” of the volunteer is a vital function at any level of participation. This is one of the most important line items in the budget. Depending on the circumstances of your organization or event, this can include breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus snacks. If food is provided, then shake it up! Don’t order in from the same sandwich shop every day. Keep in mind the makeup of your group and any dietary restrictions that may apply. If you have a kitchen on site, provide some options. Your food wholesaler can help with this. Never, never, never run out of food! In my experience, a hungry volunteer is a grumpy volunteer. Bottled water available in large quantities is a must. Hydration on a hot summer day is an important health issue. A variety of good and nourishing food and snacks help keep the blood sugar up, along with the attitude that is so important to both your clients and the team.

Identify your volunteer with something they can keep, whether with name tags, hats, shirts, or vests; have something that allows them to stand out from the crowd and be seen as part of the team. Volunteers love these things and will keep them forever.

Tell them they are appreciated — before, during, and after. An award at the after-party for service rendered will go a long way towards ensuring that they will be back next year … and perhaps even be willing to take on more responsibility.

This brief column is not the definitive book on running your volunteer group but is a compilation of things that I hope will start the conversation about improving the retention rate of volunteers for your event this year.

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