Taking the pain out of volunteer management
According to the 2016 Race Director Survey, volunteer recruitment and management ranks as one of the most difficult tasks a race director handles. Often turning to multiple groups with multiple leaders to recruit local volunteers, the stress of keeping track of so many individuals, having to communicate to them and ultimately remembering who volunteered in the past, can simply add to the stress of a race build-up.
With that in mind, we recently caught up with Kaylee Williams (pictured right), President of VolunteerLocal, a company that works with numerous races, big and small, providing a fantastic platform to recruit, schedule and manage race volunteers.
Williams shares her experience working with races, the benefits VolunteerLocal brings to the table, trends happening in the volunteer space and much more.
Running USA (RUSA); What does VolunteerLocal do and how does it impact race directors and event directors?
Kaylee Williams (KW): VolunteerLocal is a volunteer registration and scheduling platform for endurance events of all types and sizes, all over the world. Our system allows the volunteer coordinator to build (and publish) a list of jobs and shifts the event needs filled – volunteers can then self-schedule on the sign-up page.
For the race director and volunteer coordinator, we provide a full summary of jobs and shifts filled (an interactive report), a communication broadcast tool to send reminder and thank-you emails, and an on-site check-in/out to capture volunteer hours (individuals and groups).
Our platform makes it easy for volunteers, too. We don’t require them to create a username or a password to register for any event. That’s why we call it “happy volunteering” – it’s just one simple step.
RUSA: VolunteerLocal has been around for a while now. Where did the initial concept come from and how has the company grown over the past few years?
KW: That’s an excellent question.
The first iteration of the platform was actually built in 2003 for the Des Moines Arts Festival here in Iowa (where we’re headquartered). The founder of our company, Brian Hemesath, was asked by the festival director at that time to build a technology that would help her recruit 350+ volunteers into jobs and shifts for the three-day event. It worked like a charm that first year – and we’re proud to say that the Des Moines Arts Festival is still a client of VolunteerLocal (14 years later!).
In 2007, the Hy-Vee Triathlon came to town (a USAT sanctioned event). The organizers of the triathlon used VolunteerLocal and fell in love with its ease-of-use and functionality. That led to an introduction to USA Triathlon, which was the launchpad for our company. Today, we are one of several fantastic technology partners to USA Triathlon.
In the last three years, we’ve experienced tremendous growth – especially in the world of running events. We’ve found that our system is a terrific solution for this market. With VolunteerLocal, our race directors can add locations to shifts along the course, password protect jobs or shifts to reserve them for charity partners, use the on-site check-in/out tool to track volunteer hours, and even send text messages to volunteers in real time, no matter where along the route they might be stationed.
RUSA: What volunteer trends are you seeing in the industry at the moment?
KW: We’re seeing a lot of platforms moving towards simplicity and ease-of-use – and this is true for both the coordinators and the volunteers. Technology can be a powerful tool – and sometimes the best tech is the solution that gets out of the way.
To illustrate this point, VolunteerLocal was the first volunteer registration system to do away with the traditional technology “barrier to entry” that required volunteers to create a username and password combination before seeing the jobs and shifts. We flipped the concept of recruitment on its head (to great effect) by allowing the volunteers to self-schedule and register for the event in one single step. This led to increased transparency and accessibility of our customers’ volunteer signup page(s) online.
We’re also seeing an increase in the frequency and specificity of messages that are sent to volunteers throughout the recruitment process (and even after the race). Our customers are more commonly using the text messaging tool – especially as a means to quickly and efficiently contact all volunteers along the route in the case of an emergency.
There is an increased demand to leverage technology in a smarter way. Our customers want to understand who the volunteers are (specific demographics) and then use that information to strengthen their relationships with them. We just rolled out a new feature called “Rolling Birthday Notifications” which triggers a birthday greeting from the race or event organizer to each volunteer on his/her birthday.
This is just one example, of course, but it showcases my point beautifully: event organizers want smarter, more actionable data.
RUSA: Many races have a tough time attracting volunteers. What advice would you give to a race director on recruiting volunteers?
KW: Our customers have tried many different strategies/tactics to fill their shifts. Here are the ones that have been the most successful.
Recruit Groups. Like most things in life, volunteering is more fun with friends. Recruiting volunteers in groups helps to fill those shifts faster and more efficiently. Moreover, groups are usually pretty accountable – there’s an expectation that is set by our peers when we all register together. It’s a little more difficult to hit “snooze” in the morning when we know five of our friends will be waiting outside in thirty minutes.
Work with charity partners. These partnerships have many facets, of course, but our race directors almost always include a volunteer component to the agreement. Volunteers that come to the event from these charities are consistently dependable (extremely low no-show rate) and will usually arrive as a group. Allow these volunteers to wear their own t-shirts, or decorate their water stations with a banner showcasing their nonprofit – these co-branded opportunities will strengthen the relationship between the event and the charity, of course, but it will also foster a “sense of belonging” for those volunteers who are in attendance.
Offer a free registration. Some of our clients produce multiple events throughout the year, which gives them the opportunity to offer a free registration for the Turkey Trot in the fall (as an example) if someone volunteers for the marathon in the spring. Remember: people volunteer for causes they care about – it’s likely they’ll be incentivized by a free registration to another race.
Ask the athletes. Leverage your participants’ networks to fill those jobs and shifts. Include the volunteer link (and a prompt) in the confirmation email when a registration is purchased. Oftentimes, the participant’s family or friends will be coming to the event anyway to cheer on their loved one(s) – perhaps they’d be interested in supporting the event as well.
Say thank you. Our data shows us that a simple “thank you” message will increase volunteer retention, year-over-year. It’s not necessary to get creative – but we’ve seen some really fun gestures of gratitude from our race directors. The Pittsburgh Marathon gave all their volunteers free tickets to a Pirates baseball game last year. The BMO Vancouver Int’l Marathon sends their volunteers branded certificates, personalized with each volunteer’s name and the hours he/she worked. Volunteers love a little kudos (don’t we all?).
RUSA: You've had a chance to work with some great events over the years. What's a good example of a race using VolunteerLocal and really harnessing the power of their volunteer network?
KW: Twin Cities In Motion is one of our oldest clients, and they have a truly spectacular volunteer force. There are folks who have been serving as “ambassadors” of these races for years, and the culture that TCIM has generated within the volunteer community is just remarkable. Twin Cities In Motion leverages the broadcast communication tool to send regular updates to volunteers, they include course maps and other supplementary information within each job and shift, and they say “thank you” every single event. They even offer year-round volunteer opportunities (for those who are looking to get more involved than just race-day) through the Twin Cities in Motion Association.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series has used VolunteerLocal to segment medical and non-medical volunteers spectacularly. They’ve leveraged the granularity of our “administrative user” interface to ensure that only those who should have access to the medical jobs/shifts are able to log-in and manage that group. This year, they’ll be using text messaging for the first time on-site.
RUSA: What's next for VolunteerLocal?
KW: We are growing, and fast. We’ve begun partnering with registration platforms like imATHLETE to better integrate our solution into existing technology providers in this space, and (as always) we are continually improving our product by adding more features and functionality for our clients.
Most recently, we’ve launched an offline check-in/out tool, such that our race directors and volunteer coordinators can check-in volunteers as they arrive on-site, even without an internet connection.
The next six months will be really exciting for our customers – we’re re-branding some aspects of our website, making a few new hires, and we’ll be launching a series of blog posts to serve-up some of the fascinating trends in data we’ve seen over the last three or four years.
To learn more about VolunteerLocal, please visit http://try.volunteerlocal.com/volunteer-software/