June 20, 2024

Episode #115: Your Quick Guide to Amazing Volunteer Events 

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast, host Tobi Johnson offers a comprehensive guide on planning successful volunteer events. Tobi shares her insights and favorite tips on how to organize events that engage and bond volunteers, making them feel valued and connected. 

Drawing from her experiences attending various events and conferences, she emphasizes the importance of in-person gatherings, setting clear goals, providing great food, and creating a sense of belonging. The episode also covers practical advice on inclusivity, effective invitations, event logistics, entertainment, and evaluating the success of your events. Tune in for actionable strategies to make your volunteer events truly memorable! 

Volunteer Events – Episode Highlights

  • [00:53] – The Importance of Volunteer Events 
  • [01:13] – Creating Memorable Volunteer Events 
  • [01:27] – Recent Event Experiences and Insights 
  • [02:03] – The Value of In-Person Events 
  • [08:02] – Goals and Planning for Volunteer Events 
  • [10:36] – Types of Volunteer Events 
  • [13:00] – Timing and Scheduling Volunteer Events 
  • [16:07] – Top Tips for Memorable Volunteer Events 
  • [24:57] – Engaging and Welcoming Volunteers 
  • [31:33] – Evaluating and Appreciating Your Events

Volunteer Events  – Quotes from the Episode

“A gathering can foster and contribute to building community, but a gathering or an event is not the same thing as a community. I think it’s really important to recognize that. A gathering can both contribute to building and strengthening community. It can also tear community down if it’s not planned properly.” 

“Now, as we come back from COVID, people have a fair amount of social anxiety, and it’s difficult. If you haven’t been socializing for a while, it’s difficult to be in a crowd sometimes. And for some of us, it always is difficult to be in a crowd. So, think about having event greeters that are at the door, that are smiling and shaking people’s hands, helping people find their way if it’s difficult to find the entrance to your event.” 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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Episode #115 Transcript: Your Quick Guide to Amazing Volunteer Events 

Tobi Johnson: Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and I am looking forward to providing you with some hot tips on how to pull off an amazing volunteer event. One that people talk about, one that people feel sad they missed if they happen to miss it. One that people ask you, are you going to do this again? All that good stuff. You know, in volunteer management, we don’t often acknowledge it, but all of us are event planners. 

We’re always putting together things to gather volunteers together and to create a better outcome. And so, I thought, you know what? Let’s spend a little bit of time just talking about volunteer events. So, I’ve created this quick guide to amazing volunteer events, and I’m going to give you some of my favorite tips and some insider secrets on how to create something that is truly memorable. 

You know, in the last couple weeks I’ve been on the road nonstop and have attended many events. I attended the Points of Light conference. I presented a day-long workshop in Manchester on volunteer recruitment. Shout out to my folks in the UK. I went to Cambridge, England to attend an entrepreneur’s mastermind that I’m part of. 

And all these events had special things going on that I thought were interesting. And so, it made me think about what tips I can offer you. The other thing I’ve really noticed is that people are really enjoying getting back together in person. So, today’s quick guide to amazing volunteer events is not about online events. 

Some of this will apply if you’re putting on an online event, but most of it is really focused on in person. There is so much energy. Now, when people are getting back together, we have really missed our social connections with one another. There were folks at the Points of Light conference that I have not seen for at least five years, and in England as well. 

It was like, wait a minute, really? Has it really been that long? Yes, it has. And so, I think it’s cool. You know, we are in a time where we really want to build connections with our volunteers and make sure that they feel that they are appreciated, supported, that they belong, that they feel connected to one another, that there is something human about their volunteerism. 

And one of the best ways to do that is through a gathering of some kind. And so, you know, that’s what we’re going to do today. So, I’m hoping I can offer you some fresh ideas. I’ve managed and planned many events in my day, both professionally and personally. My husband and I planned our wedding. Pulled it all off. 

We didn’t have a wedding planner. We didn’t have a designer. We didn’t have any help. We did it all DIY and it was fantastic. A lot of people back in the day, this was about 15 years ago, but we had a lot of, uh, people. Compliments on our wedding. Now, would I do it myself nowadays? Probably not, but there’s so much we can learn from pulling off events, doing them well, maybe not doing them so well. 

So, let’s get started. Let’s talk about this. So, you know, there’s a few things, reasons I like in person events right now. One is, of course, we talked about people enjoy getting back together. We really are enjoying our time with one another, and we should do more of it. There’s also more you can accomplish in person. 

If you think about, you know, in an event, there’ll be a planned agenda, but there will also be the in between times. So, the break times, the mealtimes, the before times, the after times, and people will squeeze in all kinds of relationship development during those times. And so there is a lot more you can accomplish both during a planned agenda and in the in between times. 

I just feel like you can get more done in person. The other thing is people bond better in person. There is an amazing energy lately. There are connections. We can read each other’s body language better. We can see our facial expressions. I have met so many people recently in person that I have only met online. 

And I can tell you, I have a really difficult time recognizing their faces. even though I may have met with them multiple times on Zoom. It’s just not the same. And so, we, you know, people can bond and read body language and facial expressions much more easily in person. We can hug, we can shake hands. 

Those are all physical ways we communicate with one another that just cannot be duplicated online. Now, I’m not dissing online communications, of course, because, hey, I run an online community. We do online courses. I do webinars all the time. So, I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if you want to level up to another level of bonding and connection, in person is the way to go. 

The other thing I liked about the recent events I’ve been to is the great food. I have to say, like, every single event I’ve gone to, it’s really good food. Whether I’m having, you know, dinner or breakfast with friends, or I’m eating, uh, with colleagues during the event itself, there’s just something about breaking bread with people that breaks down barriers we might have. 

And so, there’s just, you know, they’ve done research on this. Actually, some deals are business deals that have more favorable results when people do meetings over meals. So, it’s very interesting. And then I’ve had a lot of fun sprinkled into some of the events I’ve been to lately. In our entrepreneur’s mastermind, we did a competitive escape room. 

We were broken up into three different groups, and we did escape rooms. And I’ve never done an escape room before, and it was fun. And it was just fun to watch people’s sort of ways they solved problems. Their problem-solving style is really interesting. And then how could each person really bring something to the table. 

It was really interesting. Lots of fun sprinkled in. Those are some of the reasons why this topic has come to mind for me. Just, just lots of fun things going on. So let me remind everybody, too, that a gathering is not a community. Sometimes we think we have a gathering; we have created a community. 

Now, a gathering can foster and contribute to building community, but a gathering or an event is not the same thing as a community. So, I think it’s important to recognize that. Also, that a gathering can both contribute to building and strengthening community. It can also tear the community down if it’s not planned properly. 

We must be careful when we create and plan for events so that we are making sure everybody feels like they belong and that they’re welcome. And so, there’s a lot of things to think about along those lines. So, let’s talk about the goals of a volunteer event. So volunteer events have specific goals, and I always want to make sure that when I’m doing planning with groups, you know, when I was a program director, I remember the last big event I planned was a statewide volunteer conference, and I did it with a group of volunteers and paid staff. 

We had a small committee planning it together. And at the beginning of the planning meetings, when we kind of kicked off our group, our committee, I asked everybody, what do we want the goal for this event to be? And I have to say, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a meeting with a group of people who are planning event, an event, and they’re not clear on the goal of the event. 

They don’t know what they want. They just get to, you know, creating the, designing the agenda. And I’m like, well, what are we trying to get done here? And so, we want to make sure you have goals for, you know, and usually a single goal is important. A single big goal and a way to check whether you’ve achieved it. 

And it must be sort of behavior based. If you can’t visualize it, then it’s very hard to see if you, if you achieve that goal or not. So, I like to finish a sentence and sometimes when I’m talking to a potential client for a speaking gig, you know, I’m doing a keynote or I’m doing a workshop or whatever, I’ll ask, finish the sentence for me.  

Our event will be successful. If dot, dot, dot. And then they try to describe to me what they want in terms of success. What is their vision for success? It is important to have a conversation about it because it can vary a lot. And we don’t want to make this implicit that nobody’s talking about it, that we’re all thinking we’re thinking the same things and we’re not. 

We want to be able to make those expectations or those visions for the future explicit. So, there’s a few different types of goals. One is building a stronger sense of community that you may ask yourself, well, how do I know if that’s happening? Well, you can do a pre and a post poll. 

How close, you know, what’s your sense of community on your volunteer team? Zero to one or zero to five or one to five. And you can ask in the event evaluation afterwards and see if community was built. So that’s simple for other goals for your event might be enlisting support for a project, gathering feedback or ideas. 

And again, you’re like, well, how do I know if that was successful? Well, maybe you have a goal of collecting X number of ideas. You obviously event we often create events around orienting new volunteers. We often create events around upskilling existing volunteers. And if you want to know more about what I might include in a new volunteer orientation, check out Volunteer Nation episode 111, New Volunteer Orientation, What to Include, What to Leave Out, for more on that. 

You know, you might create an event or a gathering to help volunteers try out a new tool, like maybe it’s software that you want people to get together and try together. You might have an event or gathering to facilitate reconciliation between a few groups. Maybe it’s paid staff and volunteers who are at odds with one another or breaking down barriers. 

Maybe it’s multi-generational volunteers and you want to make sure they’re able to work together smoothly. Obviously, we often will create events around appreciating or recognizing our volunteers. We also can create gatherings to say hello or goodbye to people, right? People are retiring or people are new. 

You want to welcome people. You want to also maybe create events or design events for managing change that might be difficult for some people. So, change management, you know, sometimes you need to get people together in a room As I said before, reinforcing a sense of belonging that everybody has a part to play. 

That’s also a great reason to create a gathering. Now, a gathering doesn’t necessarily uh, need to be a full day or multi days. It could be an hour. Right? So, you can do trainings, conferences, social gatherings, feedback or brainstorm sessions, community service projects, field days or picnics, um, all kinds of fun things you can do. 

So, you know, let creativity be your guide and check out Volunteer Nation episode 27 – Secrets to building a sense of community with volunteers, so you can get even more ideas around how to build that sense of community. 

Let’s look at what time and when is a good time for a volunteer event? Well, the most important thing is when volunteers are likely to be available. You know, often organizations will create a sense or, or design or schedule an event when most of their volunteers are at work because it is convenient for staff, for the staff of the organization. 

And we really must put volunteers first, if the event is for them. Obviously, you can’t always please all people, and you can’t schedule an event that will appeal to everybody’s schedules, or work with everybody’s schedules. But see when people are most likely and try to choose something that you can get as many people as possible to. 

Again, I talked about a good time. I talked earlier about beginnings and endings. So those times of transition are good times for a volunteer event to be scheduled. When you need folks to get oriented or on board or to get on board with a project. at different holidays or celebration times. Sometimes your organization has specific times of the year it celebrates. 

That’s a great time for a voluntary event. When a project is going to be due or before the project is about to be due, that’s a good time for an event. When a project is over, you know, that’s a great time for an event if you want to celebrate. So, there’s just a really lovely way of thinking about all kinds of times of the year to offer volunteer events. 

I am a big fan of planning out my events a year in advance. So, I like to map out what’s happening in the coming year. And then we can get to, you making sure that we don’t feel like we’re on a durable wheel all the time, event planning, or we’re behind the eight ball, or we don’t get our event invites out in time. 

I always think through, map out your year. When you do your annual planning, include volunteer events in that process. Let’s take a pause from my discussion of my quick guide to amazing volunteer events. And after the break, I’m going to give you some of my top tips on making your volunteer event truly memorable for volunteers. 

So don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back. If you’re enjoying this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Pro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated high impact volunteers. Volunteer Pro Premium membership helps you build or renovate an effective volunteer program with less stress and more joy so you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. 

And it’s the only implementation program of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system. The Volunteer Strategy success path. If you’re interested in learning more, visit volpro.net/join 

Okay, we’re back with my quick guide to amazing volunteer events. I’m very excited. I talked a little bit before the break about when to host event, what kind of events you might host, what you might achieve through your events, how you might plan for events, and now I want to get into the good stuff, which is my tips for a really good, memorable, exciting, and fun voluntary event. 

So first off, always, always, it’s important to have great content and or a good reason to meet. So, your event needs to be well organized. It needs to offer value to your volunteers. If it’s just about your organization, it’s probably not going to be of that much value to volunteers. Maybe only your volunteer leaders might really resonate. 

So, the transcribed thing you want to think about is will your organization or will your event be volunteer centric or organizational centric? And you want to focus on volunteer centric because your event needs to be of high value to volunteers. If it’s an event where you’re talking about your organization’s mission and vision, you spend two hours talking about your strategic plan, etc. 

That’s something that You can give people in a short bit, or you can give as a handout, but it’s not something that volunteers are going to be super excited to attend, unless they’re leadership volunteers. That’s just the sort of group that’s most interested in those things. So, when you look at your agenda, and really ask yourself for each thing that you have involved in your event, whether it’s fun stuff, whether it’s networking, whether it’s training, whatever it is, is it of high value to volunteers? 

If it’s all about you, I mean, we’ve all, we’ve all had those friends and family members that all they do is talk about themselves. You know the people I’m talking about, right? I’m sure you have someone in mind right now. You don’t want to be that person for your volunteers. So, we want to make sure it’s volunteer centric. 

You also want to make sure you’re making your event accessible to everybody. If volunteers need things a certain way, let’s say, say they’re neurodiverse or they have visual impairments or they need, they’re hearing impaired and they need an ASL interpreter, just make sure that you have gathered all all of the information you need to make your event completely accessible to as many people as possible. 

So, you want to make sure that happens. Another thing you want to do is, as I talked about earlier, food. Break bread breaks down barriers. And so, make sure that you’re thinking about ways you can break bread together. It can be helpful for volunteers to be able to feel like they have good connections with one another.  

All right, let’s move on to my next tip, which is to make sure your invitations are fun and have clear logistical information. You know, if you use technology, you can also show social proof. Like if people RSVP, can they comment about how excited they are about attendees? Also, you can use technology to remind people of the event coming up. 

So, you want to have some event reminders where you tease out some of the things that are going to happen at the event. So, you want to make sure of super clear logistical information. Where can people park? What’s the start time? What’s the end time? Will food be provided? If people have food intolerances or limitations on their diets, can they request a special meal, etc. 

You also may want to invite volunteers to invite friends and family. This is a great way to expand the audience you’re speaking to, but also to invite others to be part of your nonprofit in some way, or to thank friends and family members who have supported your volunteers. 

Depending on the type of event, think about who else you might invite to expand the tent. Also, I’ve talked a lot about belonging. There are specific ways you can build belonging amongst attendees. One is obviously badges, but you can also use stickers. At the Points of Light conference, all the CVA folks had different stickers, so we were all wearing sparkly CVA stickers on our name badges. 

Points of Light also had ribbons, so if you were a speaker or a CVA or a corporate person or whatever groups you belong to, you could add those ribbons to the bottom of your name tag. And that created a sense of recognition and belonging amongst attendees. You can do buttons and pins. 

I remember we used to give out little volunteer pro buttons and CVA has little lapel pins where they used to. So, there’s different ways to help people feel like they’re part of something. I remember years ago, I went to a Master Gardener strategic planning event, kind of roadshow event that they were doing throughout the state, our state in Tennessee, and I was a volunteer that was invited to this, and they gave us all little magnet hearts that we could put on our name tags as our Master, our regular volunteer So there’s all kinds of ways to just help people feel T shirts, for example, is another way. 

T shirts, hats, whatever. Different ways for people to feel like they belong. It’s also helpful, I think, I’m, you know, I have an art degree, art and art history degree, so I’m always looking at design, like graphic design. So, I always think it’s fantastic to have a strong theme and Colors. So, what are the event colors? 

You might pick a few colors from your logo or from your brand colors, or you might use other colors to create a way to create a sense of alignment throughout the whole event so that everything is using those colors, whether it’s napkins, plates, tablecloths, banners, the invitation, cetera, et cetera. So, when you have a theme, a sort of theme for your event, plus colors, the decorations all are all aligned, it makes it feel like a cohesive whole. 

And I know this sounds sort of nominal and not really that important, but it actually creates a sense of there, there. Right? And so, it’s really, I think it’s important. I also loved, and loved at the Points of Light conference, they did a photo booth, and they were printing out hard copies of photos, which was fun. 

You can do a photo booth or a storytelling booth and a way for people to share those personal pics with one another. So, um, back in the day we used to do, we used to put out plastic disposable cameras. So, so everybody at different tables could take pictures of one another and then share them. And then we would have them printed up and then digitized to share. 

 So just think about ways that people can share the energy of the event and share and have memories they can take home from the event and make sure you’ve got a backdrop of some kind that has your brand on it. You also should think about if it’s a large event that you’re going to have again or you’re going to use photos to share with funders or sponsors or volunteers for that matter. 

Think about having a professional event photographer or finding a skilled volunteer to do this. And you can use these photos, you can share them, but you can also use them to promote next year’s events. So, if you do an annual volunteer conference, you want to be able to document it so you can use that to encourage people to attend next year. 

You also want to think about the site that you choose for your event. If there’s a symbolic site or a site that has meaning for your organization or for you, your cause. If there’s something in your community that resonates with people or a place that resonates with people, see if you can reserve it. 

I’ve gone to volunteer events all over the place, including, you know, city parks, big events, conference centers, but also small venues as well. So, there’s just, you know, historic homes, there’s all kinds of gardens, there’s all kinds, depending on what your volunteers really enjoy. Sometimes it’s about just finding a place that’s also something that people can just kick back and relax in, right? 

So, think carefully about your event site. Also, think about the event experience. Now, as we come back from COVID, people have a fair amount of social anxiety, and it’s difficult. If you haven’t been socializing for a while, it’s difficult to be in a crowd sometimes. And for some of us, it always is difficult to be in a crowd. 

Not necessarily for me, but for many people, it is difficult for people to be in a crowd. whether it’s coming back from COVID or just generally. So, think about having event greeters that are at the door that are smiling and shaking people’s hands, not just your registration desk, but at the doors and that are also helping people way find if there’s a place where it’s difficult to find the entrance to your event. 

Greeters are great. I also like to have greeters, and I will greet people when they come into training, for example. I’ll circle around all the tables before we get started, and I’ll just say hi to people and chit chat with them. So where are you coming from? What organization do you work with? 

Now in your case, it might be about how long have you been volunteering? What do you do as a volunteer? Those kinds of things. It’s a way to help people feel welcome, right? Event greeters, not just your reg desk, not just showing people which door to go to, but people circling around and just saying, hey, I just wanted to say welcome to our event. 

It goes a long way towards making people feel comfortable. You can also surprise and delight your event participants by having surprise guest speakers, giving people swag bags or swag boxes. When we do our mastermind events, when I attend those, they, we, they always have such thoughtful gifts for us, right? 

And these don’t need to be super expensive. I’ll give you an example of one we did; my husband and I did at our wedding. So we got married about 15 almost 15 years ago and researched a bunch of quotes on love and then I printed them out on slips of paper and I rolled them into or we had cloth napkins that that we had ordered from an event supplier, and we rolled our silverware into the napkins, and then we put these little quotes inside the napkins, and then we wrapped them with these paper. 

I took some stenciled paper that we cut into long strips and then taped it around the napkins. So, when everybody, you know, anybody opened their napkins, it was like a fortune cookie quote would fall out of the napkin. So that was the way we surprised and delighted our wedding guests. We also did because my husband’s a geologist, we do love rocks. 

 So, we had these little mesh bags that said love rocks and it had little pebbles in them. Each one had a pebble in it that said Love Rocks. So, you can think about themes and just fun things. Now, none of these were very expensive. None of this was overly expensive. So, you know, you don’t have to, to surprise and delight, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. 

Some other things about the experience, your event agenda. Make sure that you have time. Plenty of time for breaks and conversations. So important. I know we have a lot to cover sometime, particularly if we’re working on, you know, for, we’re presenting an event around training, but people really need time now, nowadays, they don’t want to feel rushed. 

So, we’ve got to give people a lot of time for breaks. for lunch, a lot of time, um, or sufficient time between segments of our events so people can get up, walk around, share with one another. And sometimes we do things, for example, At Points of Light, Patricia Gentry and I, who is co presenting with me, we, our event was started, our training session started at 4pm in the afternoon on the third day of the conference. Now you can imagine, people are pretty tired by then. So as folks came in and we got started, we did some movement exercises together, just like raising, tapping and stepping and raising our hands over our heads. It was a lot of fun. We did it for about three minutes. And the entire room was doing it with us. So, you know, think about ways to energize people at certain times of the day to make sure that you’re working with people sort of circadian rhythms or internal clocks. Also, you can set aside time for icebreakers at the beginning of the day or after lunch or after breaks. 

You can set aside time for facilitated networking, you know, for many people, just the word network or networking, you know, makes them break out in a cold sweat. And so, figure out a way that you can facilitate networking so there’s people can meet people without feeling like they’re having to walk up to people’s complete strangers and not have anything to say. 

I talked about that earlier. I also love it when people will do a slideshow to music of the event photos so people can remember what happened at the event. I think that’s always really fun. That’s a bunch of tips. I’ve provided a bunch of tips, but I also want to give you three more things to think about as you’re planning your voluntary event. 

One is getting donations or sponsored items. If you’re working in a nonprofit, there’s no reason why you can’t ask the community to help. You know, you can ask a local grocery store to provide a cake, for example. You can ask a corporate sponsor to maybe sponsor the coffee. You know, you don’t even have to ask a sponsor to pay for it all. 

Just a small portion of your event. If you need to charge for your event, make sure there’s a way in. that people who can’t afford as much can get a scholarship or a reimbursement or some discount. Gone are the days when we expect volunteers to pay for everything and gone are the days when volunteers have enough money to pay for everything. 

Now some people do, and some people may want to, but be careful about what you’re asking of your volunteers, especially in today’s environment. It, you know, it’s something that they are sensitive to right now. And then finally, evaluate your event. Make sure you use surveys, or you’ve set specific goals that you can revisit after the event is over, and create a folder online wherever you have your online folders or in your, on your computer where you keep an archive of everything. 

So, the event invitation or a screenshot of it, the event plan, the budget, planned and actual, who was on the event committee, everything that you need to evaluate your event. And when you’re evaluating it, you want to get together with your committee and review. So, here’s what happened. So do a wrap up and then write handwritten thank you notes to everybody who’s helped you with that event. 

It’s just the right thing to do, right? It’s just being polite, right? And courteous and just letting them know how much you appreciate their help pulling your event off. So, there you go. That’s my best tips on pulling together your best event ever and your quick guide to an amazing volunteer event. So, I hope this has been helpful. 

If it has, I hope you’ll share it with a friend. Anybody who’s planning a volunteer event coming up or soon or even in the far future, this can be helpful to just kind of thinking through, what do I need to remember? And hopefully you have. other tips as well, I’m sure. I haven’t covered it all by any stretch of the imagination, but these are some of the things throughout the years when I’ve been planning events and attending events recently where I thought I’d pull it together and just give you some ideas. 

I hope it’s been helpful. Thank you again to everybody who’s been listening. I’ve met so many Volunteer Nation podcast listeners on my travels recently. I appreciate every one of you. Sometimes it just surprises me. People come out, hey, I listen to the pod every week. Wow. It continues to blow my mind. 

Thank you for all you do. Thank you for being loyal listeners. And we will be here next week. Same time, same place on the volunteer nation.