Thoughts on swing dancing and Lindy Hop, one word at a time…

Volunteer Coordinating: A How-To Guide by Brandi Ferrebee

Commonly compared to herding cats, volunteer coordinating is a tricky and stressful job. However with good foresight and planning, you too can make sure all of your event responsibilities have a volunteer assigned and prevent wanting to hit your head against a brick wall.

Today we have a guest blog post by Brandi Ferrebee, who is experienced at many event organizer roles including being a volunteer coordinator.

Brandi Ferrebee

Brandi in her natural element. – Photograph by Jessica Keener 

Brandi lives in Baltimore, where she dances at the raucous and eternal Mobtown Ballroom. She’s served in any number of middle management roles at Lindy hop, Balboa, and blues dance events. Favorite event tasks include shifting dance floor panels in a dress at 3 a.m., buying end-of-event whiskey for event owners, putting all the faces in order when she counts the cashbox for the fifth time, picking up kale salads for Ramona, and yelling at raccoons. The surest places to find Brandi in the coming year are at Hot Mess, Lindy Focus, and the Experiment.

Introduction

Hello, brave soul. They tell me that you want to coordinate volunteers for a dance event. God save you. Enclosed here is my guide to not going absolutely, mind-numbingly bonkers over this job. It can be terrible, or it can actually go pretty smoothly. This is my guide to doing it pretty smoothly. Start planning as far out from the event as possible– like a the end of the previous year’s event, or 6 months out. – Brandi


Guide to Volunteer Coordinating

Find Out Who Did This Before

  • Who was on staff the last time this event happened? Who do you know of that has coordinated volunteers at similar events, or within your dance organization, or in the region your event takes place in? If you can find those people, pick their brains for what went well and what didn’t. Also, save this information for the next step…

Create list of “Preferred” and “Oh Hell No” Volunteers

  • Look, there will be wonderful people who you could drop a stack of $100 bills in front of, run off, and then they would pick up all the bills, face them in the same direction, rubber band them, and chase you down to return the money. You’re gonna want to know who they are so that you can use them—especially, say, on cash box.
  • There will be people who regularly skip out on shifts, get in verbal fights with event directors, try to sneak off to the dance during their shifts, etc. You’ll want to know who they are so you can avoid them.
  • There will also be people who just need special instruction, are good for specific jobs only, etc. These people can be very useful if applied properly.
  • Keep a list of all these people. Google doc it, label your tabs, share it, notate it, confer with other events, etc. Everyone will appreciate you.
  • Especially consult this list when you’re considering giving out a high number of hours to volunteers (more than 4-6 hours in a weekend, depending on the event) and want to be sure you won’t be left in the lurch.
  • Don’t know anything about someone emailing you who wants to volunteer for 10 hours? Ask for references from their work at other events. Then actually follow up on those references. This can be really useful, and give unknown-to-you volunteers a chance to get more involved and give you a chance to get to know other organizers.
  • Bow down to the beautiful terror of the no-go list. Do not hurt thyself.
  • Figure out good, trusted, flexible people for jobs that may or may not actually be needed, like driving instructors/musicians/DJs, getting lunches, dealing with things that come up, etc. These are your lifesavers.

Have a Plan To Handle Money

  • Work with the other event directors. Figure out what works best with your culture/budget. But for the love of god, pay those kids somehow, because we still live in a capitalist society, and they need to eat.
  • $10 an hour is pretty standard. I like to pay this, in cash, at the end of the event/the volunteer’s last shift unless otherwise agreed upon. This ensures that they show up until the end, and that they know we value their work. Checks are just complicated. Don’t do that to yourself.
  • You can also pay people in discounted admission to the event, but I would advise not doing this unless you really trust the volunteer and they have a strong track record. There are people on my “Oh Hell No” list for skipping out on their shifts after they’ve been let in free to the event on the understanding they’d work a crapload of hours. Guard thyself.
  • Some events have people work and allow them to get event swag as payment. To each their own.

Get the Word Out

  • Figure out how those potential volunteers will contact you. Email? Facebook? a Google Form? Any of these are acceptable, but I usually go with an event-based volunteer-specific gmail account. Post on the website, facebook page, event page, your facebook, etc etc etc everywhere forever how to contact you to volunteer. Start around the time of registration opening and keep pushing it until the week before or so.
  • I’d advise setting up an auto-responder if you got that volunteers-at-this-event-specifically email address set up. Have it thank them for contacting you and let them know you’ll get back to them once a schedule has been established.
  • When a schedule has been established, make a spreadsheet (Google sheets is my preference) and make columns for name, phone number, email, times can definitely work, times cannot work, and other comments.

Make a Schedule

  • Work with the other organizers to figure out when you will need people to watch the door, set up the venue, break down the venue, provide snacks, drive people or food, etc. etc. Think of everything. Quiz others to make sure you’ve thought of everything.
  • Make a spreadsheet (Google. You can share it with others easily.) and make the whole schedule in half-hour or hour increments. Figure out how many slots you need to fill. This would be a good time to let the organizers know how many slots times how much reimbursement equals how much they need to have on hand.

Get Info From Volunteers

  • Still advertising for needing volunteers? Good.
  • Now respond to all those emails (BCC) and ask them for:
    • Full name
    • Email address
    • Cell phone number
    • Local/out-of-towner (when are they arriving?)
    • Car/transportation plan

Schedule Those Kitties

  • Panic about having too few/too many volunteers for your allotted number of slots.
  • Make schedule anyway.
  • Use Google calendar (sensing a theme yet?) associated with that email account you made. Put in all the needed times to be filled in one calendar color, then put in all the times each volunteer is able to work in another color. (This will take some time and seem messy, but it’s totally worth it, I promise.) This will show you times that will be hard to fill, easy to fill, etc and will make it much easier to figure out scheduling those animals.
  • Figure out which volunteers get first pick. Trusted volunteers, those needing maximum hours for pass, ones with weird scheduling issues, those who can fill obvious problem times usually go first.
  • Create the final schedule in yet another color. Hide the availability calendar for your sanity, but keep it around in case you need to cover a shift quickly.
  • Also enter the final schedule into another tab of your volunteer contacting spreadsheet. You will share (view-only) with your volunteers, organizing staff, and printer. Print a bunch of those things, and use them on the ground to confirm who worked their shifts.

Spread the Word

  • When you send out the schedule, make it clear that you have included contact information for other volunteers. If someone’s shifts do not work for some reason, it is their responsibility to find a replacement. Both they and the replacement MUST confirm the change. Also, let them know the consequences for not showing up or not showing up on time (decide what “on time” means to you and your event.)

You’re Actually There. This is Happening.

  • Maybe have a meeting the first night to make the volunteers all look at your face and each others’ faces. Remind them about lateness, covering shifts, payment, etc. Train as needed for the positions they’ll be working.
  • The volunteer coordinator or event manager need to oversee every turnover, training and checking in on volunteers who are doing their job for the first time as necessary.
  • In my opinion, volunteers who do not show up on time (5-15 minutes or more late) should not get paid for that shift. Period. This is paid work, and you can’t afford to have shit go down.
  • Printed volunteer schedules should be at desk/cash box, with all event managers/main base, and on the person of the volunteer coordinator at all times.
  • Records should be kept on volunteer coordinator’s schedule of who has worked what shifts so as to keep hour totals. Hour totals are how you pay people at the end!

Pay People at the End!

  • If you’re going my way, have the other organizers get you enough cash to pay everyone. Have lots of tens. FOR GOD’S SAKE, BE CAREFUL. Pay out in cash at the last shifts of each worker unless otherwise agreed.
  • Make sure each volunteers literally signs off on their hours and that they were paid.

Party with the other Organizers

  • Because you’ve paid everyone and survived the event!

Get Back to Work

    • Take notes within a week on what went well, what could be improved, and which volunteers are now better known to be trustworthy/scum. Use your volunteer “Preferred” and “Oh Hell No” lists. Share the wealth of your experiences with others.

Thanks for reading! Now, please be good to yourself. – Brandi


Thanks Brandi for the informative post and Jessica Keener for permission to use her photography! If you have any advice or stories about coordinating volunteers or being a volunteer yourself, we would love to hear it. Feel free to leave a few words in the comment selection below or even write your own blog response.

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7 responses

  1. Cari

    Love your advice, Brandi! I hadn’t considered the Google Doc (I have a complicated use of notecards & the floor), but I think I’m going to try it this year!

    As a frequent staff member & volunteer coordinator, I agree with 98.7% of the things you say (give or take 1.3%). I especially promote the use of “Hell Yes” and “Hell No” lists — though, I will sometimes shift people on the “Hell No” to a “On Probation” list, with the understanding that they don’t have first pick of shifts and they need to really step up their game.

    Personally, I try to limit the number of volunteers I take on. If someone comes to me the weekend before and desperately needs financial assistance, then I try to find a place for them…but if you don’t sign up early, you’re not on my list unless you seek me out.

    I also try to have “Primary” or “Extra Specially Awesome” Volunteers. I put them in charge of things that are a little bigger — the jobs might not have a defined set of tasks, and as such, it’s hard to put someone in there who is going to do the bare minimum. These volunteers tend to see something that needs to get done and just DO it.

    And finally, I would offer one more piece of advice: Learn to Trust Your Volunteers (as much as possible). I know it’s hard to step away from the front desk and stop managing all the things (as is appropriate: you’re staff, and this event is tied to your reputation as such). However, you are hiring volunteers for a reason. Keep an eye on those you don’t know, but try as hard as you can to trust those who demonstrate competency.

    August 3, 2015 at 7:33 pm

  2. Brandi, on point as always! Thank you so much for sharing this with the community.
    I have two thoughts to share.
    1. I’m sure the Google Calendar scheduling is slick in execution, but I have to imagine that it is a very slow and cumbersome setup. Would an XY-plot with some conditional formatting be faster and maybe as effective? See this for an example https://goo.gl/ch0Elp

    2. I’m to interpret from the above that you prefer the system of “pay now to register & we will pay you back as you clock your volunteer hours.”? To me, that’s not volunteering, that’s working. My issue with the pay-now, get paid back system is this: If I don’t have the $100 to register for your event (not to mention letting that money stay in your pocket for a while), I just can’t come.
    Generally, I feel that volunteering is related to financial concerns. People aren’t looking to make money, they’re looking to go to the event. I understand how the post-payment system incentivizes people doing their shifts and preventing no-shows, but it isn’t rock-solid. For me, for most things dance-related, I try to trust the good-will of the people attending, much less those that have specifically asked to volunteer (well, excepting the cash-box 😉 ). I’m not saying that nobody ever sneaks into an event or will just skip out on their duties completely, I just feel that doing so is literally pathetic.

    August 4, 2015 at 6:36 am

    • Dear Rich,

      1. This is the thing that I forgot to say: “Somewhere out there, there is someone who can do logic problems and code. That person has an opportunity to make pretty much no money off me, but would earn my undying appreciation and whose creation I would share with all the other volunteer coordinators.” You may be that person.

      2. Yes, you are deeply and totally right. I’ve volunteer-coordinated at events of all sizes and types. Technically, it isn’t even volunteer coordinating, because I am not making a schedule for candy-stripers; I’m offering the opportunity for people who are willing to work in exchange for compensation. (I did not invent my title. Sometimes, I change my title for just this reason.)

      I totally relate to those dancers who want to be able to make the weekend work. I’ve been there. As I mentioned in my guide, people of this type who I trust or who can provide references for I am often willing to make exceptions for.

      The thing is, though, this call is for *organizers* to make. It is not my call to mess with their revenue streams without their approval, so any decisions about waiving part or all of a registration fee must be discussed with organizers and the final call left to them.

      One organization that I have worked with emphasized that they wanted to waive part or all of registration for people asking that unless I had that person on a “Hell No” list. We agreed that this might lead to a less reliable workforce that would require greater hands-on work from me (it absolutely, positively, completely did), but it was important to the values of the organization that we did it that way, and so we did. Another event that I have worked with does not bring workers on unless they already know, love, and trust them. This allows for more dependability, but is far less able to accommodate newer, cash-strapped dancers. It all depends on the values of the event/organizers, and the policies can be shifted to fit priorities as needed.

      ***Side note: I do not inherently mistrust workers that I do not know, but I have absolutely seen dancers knowingly stiff organizers after not working all the shifts required to cover their registration price. More often, I have seen workers forget about shifts, have trouble getting a ride, or realize that they need to finish a paper. Shit happens. The guidelines I laid out here are more about recognizing that there are things you can do to make volunteer coordinating easier on yourself and there are things that you can do that will make it more work, but which you may decide are well worth it. Guide meant to be adjustable to many situations, needs, personality types, and time restrictions!***

      August 6, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    • I agree with the pay now and we’ll pay you back later issue. I ran into this issue with one or two volunteers at the first BluesQuake. Ultimately, the team had a vote and this is what we went for despite my criticism. However, I lean both ways when it comes to this not being volunteering/job. The only way this becomes a job is if they get paid more by the end for what they actually paid for the event. But yes, I understand the concern of this as a volunteer and as a coordinator.

      May 6, 2016 at 8:57 pm

  3. KL

    SO many thank yous! As an organizer at a small but growing scene, we don’t have pre-existing setup in this country so thanks for the super helpful introduction to hopefully avoid some pitfalls

    August 17, 2015 at 5:14 pm

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