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 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.
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.
One of the biggest mistakes I read about, hear about, or personally witness is swing dance events and venues attempting to target the entire market of possible customers who would attend their business or even worse not having a target audience at all.
I can confidently say that there is no organizer/venue/event in the swing dance community has the resources to supply the demand for the entire market. Even the events with massive amount of dancers such as Lindy Focus or Herräng targets a segment of the market.
What I define as the term market for the swing dance community is; every person who currently has swing dancing as a hobby/profession or is physically/mentally able to have swing dancing as a hobby/profession but does not.
What this means for you as an organizer of an event is you need to segment your market or find a niche of target customers that you can provide value to as a business. For a more technical business world definition of market segmenting you can find it here. If you look online, talk to marketing professionals, talk to marketing professors, or read books on marketing there are a variety of ways to how to go about segmenting a market. What I am going to do here is give a simple layout that is applicable for an individual who is running a weekly venue or hosting a one time/yearly recurring swing dance event.
1. Decide A Target Geographic Location
The first thing is to decide upon target geographic location. If you are running a swing dance venue for a college town your potential customers are going to be considerably different then if you lived in a big city or a rural area. A recurring weekly dance is going to have a smaller target geographic location in comparison to an international camp such as Herräng where the entire world is fair game. Speaking of distance, the further away you attempt to attract dancers you will need to have match that with increased value such as; quality instructors, dancers, DJs or live bands.
2. Decide The Type Of Customer
The second thing is to decide upon the type of customer you are trying to attract to your business in terms of dance experience, dance background, and lifestyle.
Dance experience is simply how long have your target customers been dancing. This is important because a random person off the street who has never danced in their life has fairly different needs then a seasoned dancer who is a regular on the competition circuit. It is a reality that when you start to cater to one end of the spectrum you will likely alienate the other and it is a choice as an organizer you have to make.
Dance background is the dances your customer identifies with. For example when people press for specifics I say I dance Lindy Hop, Balboa, and Collegiate Shag. For every dance under the umbrella term of swing dancing there is a specific culture attached to each dance. These various cultures have values and preferences that are sometimes complimentary and other times conflict with other dance communities. It is essential as an organizer to aware of the specific values and preferences with a particular dance’s community in order to provide a high-value experience for your target audience.
Lifestyle covers a variety of things such as personal values or personality types. Essentially what it comes down to is; where is this person in their life and what preferences do they have because of it. As someone running an event or venue this is important because a college student who participates the usual Lindy/Blues dance exchange circuits is going to have different needs then a married full time professional who occasionally takes time off work a few times a year to compete at Balboa events.
3. Check Feasibility
You now have your target market segment clearly written out and described. Now the thing to check is if you and any collaborators have the resources to make your business feasible for your target market. An excellent article written by Bill Speidel, an experienced event organizer is titled So You Want To Be A Lindy Hop Event Organizer and a great reality check/resource for any person intending to get into the business of running a swing dance event/venue.
What I define as the term resources for the swing dance community is; a commodity service or other asset that is required to run a swing dance venue/event. This is not limited to physical assets such as money but can be; also trained staff, volunteers, an established reputation among traveling dancers, established in the network of neighboring dances/events, positive Yelp reviews, and et cetera.
Throughly checking if these resources are available is important responsibility as an organizer. You can organize an amazing event but if you neglect to check on the resource of availability of date and conflict with an established event in the region you are fighting and uphill battle.
In the case that your target segment is simply unfeasible within your current time frame you have the options of postponing until it is possible or choosing a new segment that is feasible.
4. Apply Your Market Segment
You have your detailed market segment and you have asked the questions and done the research to determine it is feasible, great! The only thing you have to do now is use that knowledge appropriately.
This can be done in a multitude of ways, a common one is advertising. If you are trying to attract customers who have never danced before Groupon and newspaper ads would be an effective marketing campaign compared to Facebook Events and fliers sent to dance venues which is traditionally used for established dancers.
Another one is the choice of staff such as instructors and DJs. Customers who have not danced before or have limited experience will be much less selective in comparison to dancers who have been dancing longer or are at a higher skill level.
The thing to take from all of this the importance of having a clearly defined market segment. The most common mistake I see in newer events is often they try to cater to too large of a market segment. In result their resources get spread thin and they are unable to deliver a quality experience for any of the dancers that attend.
I plan to write a future post going into a few venues and events that I think are great examples businesses that properly segmented their market. However if you have any stories or opinions I would love to hear them in the comment box below!
While I am not a top-tier traveling international instructor, I would say I have done my fair share of competitions in my last few years of dancing. One thing I have noticed is the diversity of the types of competitions in the swing dance community in terms of organization and advertisement.
An example in respect to advertising would be the contrast in these two contest descriptions from ILHC and Lindy 500:
The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill. from Lindy 500 (2012)
The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill. By invitation or request only. If you think you should be in this contest, contact email@example.com. You cannot be a regular instructor or international teacher or any such shit. If you teach some locally, that’s okay. Skye Humphries is specifically barred from entering this contest. $5 entry fee.
Invitational J&J from ILHC (2012)
This will be an Invitational social dance competition open to dancers determined by the organizers. Leaders and followers will be randomly drawn to dance together to several songs of varying styles and tempos and judged as a couple as they compete in spotlight format.
Competitors are not allowed to dance with “regular” partner (one that they dance and/or have competed with in a choreographed routine in the last 4 years, Team routines do not count) Social dance partners are accepted and will be considered “luck of the draw”.
Below is my recommended blueprint or guidelines to setting up a competition:
- Developing an appropriate vision.
- Write appropriate contest rules and descriptions.
- Fill necessary roles.
- Figure out and write down logistics.
- Last minute checkup.
1. Developing an Appropriate Vision
Your have decided to have a competition, great! Now the question is how many swing dance events have you run in the past? If the answer is little to none, having a ULHS or ILHC sized competition is probably a bit too lofty of a goal for your first competition to be organizing. The first part of developing an appropriate vision is:
- Realizing what experience you and potential co-organizers who are putting on the competition have and the resources you have to work with.
Another thing to consider is the context of this competition being organized. Is it part of a workshop weekend with a live band? Is it part of a weekly dance with attendance of less then one-hundred people? Is your scene near a lot of big cities with sizable scenes or are you in the middle of no-where and rarely get out of town visitors? Will other local organizers support your event or openly antagonize you and conflict with your event in spite of advance notice? Some of these things are not pleasant truths to deal with but are the reality of organizing any event, let alone a competition. The second part of developing an appropriate vision is:
- Realizing what kind of attendance your event is likely to get.
- Considering if you have local swing dance scenes that will support you.
- Deciding if your event targets out-of-town dancers and if you have the resources to attract them to support you?
Lastly the intent of the competition is something that is important to think about. Is this a competition that is created for new competitors to get their feet wet and has more of a fun community feeling or is this more of a serious competition where it is going to be on youtube later and the prizes are nothing to scoff at? The context of the contest decides everything from entrance fees, if you use in-house judges or hire professional instructors to judge, if the finals are an all-skate versus phrase-battle, and et cetera. The last part of developing an appropriate vision is:
- Realizing the purpose of why you and your co-organizers are putting on the competition and the context you want it to have.
2. Write Appropriate Contest Rules and Descriptions
You now have a vision or outline for what type of event you and your co-organizers want. This can be anything from a small Amateur Jack & Jill that is part of a weekly dance to a competition with a Jack & Jill, Strictly Lindy, and Solo Charleston contest that is part of a workshop weekend with a live band. The next part is to come up with contest rules and descriptions that are appropriate for your event.
I listed the Lindy 500 contest description for their Jack & Jill above because I wanted to illustrate the point that “appropriate” is relative to the dancers which the contest is trying to appeal to. Baltimore’s scene addresses a different audience for their workshop weekend event in comparison to ILHC which is an international competition weekend. With their description one can infer that having fun and taking oneself not too seriously is something the contest organizers are trying to advocate. My general advice is unless if you know your target audience fairly well, err on the side of being too professional versus potentially confusing or alienating potential competitors. This means assume everyone reading your descriptions are first time competitors and do not know the definitions of phrases such as “Strictly Lindy”, “Jack & Jill”, or “Phrase Battle”. The first part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:
- Write rules that are appropriate for the atmosphere of the contest you are trying to create. When in doubt, err on the side of being too explicit and professional.
Another thing important to note is no matter how relaxed and carefree the competition you are about to host is, addressing safety is a highly recommended idea. The last thing you want is the newer dancer who is entering his first competition trying to throw an aerial he or she learned off of youtube in the middle of an amateur Jack & Jill. If you want to reinforce the seriousness of ignoring the rules, listing the penalty of it such as disqualification from the contest is a good idea as well. The second part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:
- Especially for safety, if you don’t want something happening in a competition explicitly write what is not allowed.
Lastly make sure to address the essential questions about a contest in your description such as,
Who is allowed in each division? Where are the competitions being held? What time are the competitions? What kind of competitions are they? How are the competitions being judged? What tempos are going to be played in the competition? Who is judging the competitions? How is preliminary rounds being held? How are finals being held?
It is the prerogative of an event organizer of some of these details if they are publicly listed, perhaps the final format being secret is part of the atmosphere of the event. It is a nice touch though to let people know where and when they should be. On a positive note if you actually post contest rules and descriptions you are already ahead of the game. I have participated in many contests where I simply knew there was going to be a contest at that event and that was the only information I was provided. The last part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:
- Make sure it is written out what type of competitions you are having, where they are, when they are, and other essential information relevant to potential competitors.
3. Fill Necessary Roles
Now that you have the rules and descriptions for your contest, you now need individuals to run your contest under those guidelines. Depending upon the scope of the competition you are attempting to put on you may need a few people to an entire team of people to help you run a competition. If this is just a casual local competition you can probably use volunteers/compensated individuals from your local scene, whereas if you are trying to make it a serious competition you will probably have to hire people experienced at their respective roles.
Below is a short list of roles that should be filled at a minimum.
- Competition DJ or Live Band: For either a DJ or a live band this should preferably be people who have experience doing this or at very least been educated and briefed on what playing for a competition entails.
- Judges: Depending upon the seriousness of your competition this can be randomly chosen people to professional dancers who are regularly hired to judge at events.
- Master of Ceremonies (MC): The job of this individual is to host the contest and this entails introducing competitors, announcing what is happening, making sure the judges are ready before a contest begins, and other miscellaneous activities.
Here are optional roles that may or may not be necessary depending upon the scope of your competition.
- Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter: The job of this individual is to count people off when they are supposed to enter in a phrase battle. If you are having finals where couples go out one at a time, it is advised to have someone do this.
- Contest Tabulator: If you are having multiple competitions it is advised to have an experienced individual handle contest tabulation. For a smaller event with only one to two competitions, often the head judge can be responsible for this.
- Contest Coordinators: This is only necessary if you are having a competition with a massive amount of dancers. I’m talking like ILHC, Frankie 95, Camp Hollywood, and et cetera sized. The job of this person is to make sure people do things like rotate during Jack & Jills properly and are lined up while waiting to go on the floor.
- Sound Guy: This is only necessary if you are having a large and professional competition and are renting/using a massive room for your event. The job of this person is to make sure your band/DJ’s music is clearly audible to the competitors and the crowd.
Below is the Invitational Strictly Lindy finals from ILHC 2012, notice Falty doing the job of Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter.
4. Figure Out and Write Down Logistics
At this point you should now have a mission statement or vision for your contest, contest rules and descriptions decided upon, and know which individuals need to be hired/delegated to fill in the necessary roles for your event. Now that you have all the puzzle pieces, you need to fit them all together.
You can have the coolest event in the world with the best instructors, a beautiful venue, and a killer live band… but if nobody knows that your event exists all your efforts are for naught. Advertising is key to having not just a competition but any successful event and the earlier you start the better. An important thing to note is how you advertise your event can also set the tone for it:
With high production value Lindustrial Revolution 2012’s youtube advertisement sets the tone that the organizers are professional. In addition the youtube clip emphases that their steampunk theme is something to dress up for. The ways you can advertise for your event are limited by you own creativity; word of mouth, fliers, free-shirts for traveling dancers to wear with your event logo & date on it, youtube advertisements, and paid advertisements on yehoodi are some of the few different ways I have seen organizers advertise their events. The first part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:
- Develop an effective advertising strategy that sets the tone for your event.
Now that there is a system in place for people to find out about your contest the next thing that needs to be accomplished is how is it actually being set-up, run, then taken down. In simple terms, “Who does what? and where?”. My advice is to create a detailed schedule of events that what individual, is doing what particular task, and at what time. An example is below:
8:00 PM – Jim Jones – Unlock the doors to the venue and set thermostat to coldest possible temperature.
8:10 PM – Kendra Robbins/Robert Jones/Sarah Smith – Start setting up tables and chairs according to the floor diagram.
The important thing this covers is who is responsible for every task. The reason I put emphasis on writing this all down is when you say things verbally it is not as binding and people have a tendency to forget. When things are on paper (and/or google documents) it makes it easy for people to know what they are responsible for and when they need to do it. The second part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:
- Create a schedule of events that lists of tasks need to be completed, what time they need to be completed by, and the individuals responsible for working on them.
Lastly an important detail to cover is what prizes you are providing for the competition. This can be anything from cash, trophies, passes to other events, passes to vintage shops/shoe shops, and et cetera. A piece of an advice though big events like Lindy Focus/Camp Hollywood and such have a billion organizer barking up those respective trees for free passes for competitions, a better and more realistic idea is to probably offer to other organizers you know to trade passes for events. Also it is your choice as an organizer if you want to advertise the prizes for your event beforehand. I have noticed the larger events tend to, whereas smaller events don’t. The last part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:
- Decide upon what prizes will be provided for your event and if needed network to obtain them.
On an aside I have not noted the process to renting a venue, how to hire instructors, and things in a similar vein because those are basics to organizing an event. In the scope of this article I am focusing on mainly how to organize a competition.
5. Last Minute Checkup
You now have everything to set up to run your own competition and haven’t pulled out your hair or killed someone yet, congratulations! The last thing to do is just to oversee your competition, create contingency plans for any possible problems and handle any situations that come up. The last responsibility can often be prevented by effective planning, but sometimes things come up that no one could foresee.
As an organizer what I mean by oversee the competition is just making sure things are at where they should be and people are doing their jobs. Some examples of this could be checking to make sure safety-pins and numbers are available at the registration table or making sure the judges are present a few minutes before the competition starts. The first part of doing a last minute checkup is:
- Making sure everything in your schedule of events is running smoothly.
If you are planning to have a competition outdoors sometimes rain happens or perhaps a ton of people signed up for your competition, but not as many people showed up as you planned for. Contingency plans should be created for factors that are out of your control, especially if you are dealing with as something as fickle as weather. The second part of doing a last minute checkup is:
- Creating contingency plans for conditions that are out of your control.
Lastly no matter how much you prepare, stuff just happens. One event I know literally had one of their headlining instructors stranded because a volcano grounded his flight. Another event I know had their headliner band literally get snowed in so they couldn’t travel to their event. The important thing for you to do as an organizer is not to freak out and instead explore your option and choose the best possible one to deal with the situation. At times unfortunately this may consist of choosing the lesser of two evils. The last part of doing a last minute checkup is:
- Being prepared to make difficult on the spot decisions if something out of your hands goes awry.
While I tried to cover the full scope of how to run a competition, I did not literally cover everything. To do so would be a document far lengthier then this already long blog post. My advice is if you have any doubts or concerns, seek out an organizer who is experienced in running competitions or even season competitors and consult them for their experience. My personal advice on someone who has been in multiple competitions and have helped to run a few myself is:
- Never underestimate the ability for dancers in a Jack & Jill to mess up rotation. Assume they are sheep that need to be herded.
- Safety wavers, have them. If I run an event this is a non-negotiable because it prevents liability issues from occurring.
- Have a strict time schedule and stick to it. My biggest pet peeve as a dancer at a competition that I am not a participant in is competitions taking forever.
If you have any particular advice for individuals putting on competitions or any questions yourself feel free to post in the comments section!