Planning a Big Event? Train Your Volunteers Ahead of Time

“I have to go to a pre-event training? Just to volunteer? Really?” At least, that’s what I first said (under my breath) when asked to come to an evening training in order to participate in setup at the upcoming “Bay to Barkers” dog walk and festival. Bay to Barkers is an annual fundraiser for the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), being held this year in Albany, California on Sunday July 29.

Of course, I dutifully arrived at the training. And now I get it: For a big event like this one, there really is a lot of information that the organizers need to convey – and questions that volunteers like me might have.

As Ashley Hurd, President of Eventful (with which BEBHS contracted in order to put on the event), “I’ve learned from years of events-coordination that when they’ve got lots of moving parts, we can save a lot of time and trouble by getting volunteers briefed ahead of time. Once volunteers get to the event, they then know where to go and what they’re doing.”

You don’t need to hold an advance training for every type of nonprofit fundraising event, of course. If the event is small-scale or simple, perhaps with only a few volunteers (or only a few who haven’t done this event before), there’s no need to add another item to everyone’s schedule.

But now that I think back, I can remember instances where I wish the group holding the event had, in fact, held a preparatory training. There was the one where the (overworked) organizer told me, upon arrival the day of, that I’d be the primary First-Aid person. Surprise! Luckily, I’ve had First-Aid training, and don’t mind the sight of blood if it’s not coming out of me, but the organizer didn’t know that. Then, somewhere in mid-afternoon, after a participant complained that the toilet paper had run out in all the Portapotties, the organizer told me with a “didn’t you know?” tone that refilling them was part of my job, too. I bet a lot of participants wish I’d gone to an advance training for that event.

With all that in mind (or not), here are Ashley’s top tips for holding a successful volunteer training:

  • Give people plenty of advance notice of the training date. “People don’t like to commit to an extra meeting too far in advance, but if you wait too long, they’re already booked. Continue following up with people about both the training and the event itself.”
  • Offer food. “Pizza and sodas, for instance, are always a good way to get people to a meeting.”
  • Convey information. “I like to give the big picture of what will be happening and when. I also cover things that participants might ask about, like where the bathrooms and other key things are. You can get into the details of specific volunteer positions, too. In some cases, as people have a few days to think about their job, they ask important questions in between.”
  • Pass out a map of the event. “I’m a visual person, so I like to give others the chance to picture where they’ll be, and something to refer to once they’re there.”
  • Leave time for questions. “You’ll get plenty of them; everything from, ‘Oh, it’s on Sunday, not Saturday?!’ to ‘Can I bring my own dog along?’”
  • Make sure people are comfortable with their job assignments. “If you don’t know all the volunteers well ahead of time, this is a chance to not only make sure people are comfortable with their positions, but that they’re well matched to the work requirements. Not everyone is really suited to be a greeter, for example, or should be out in the parking lot for hours, alone.”
  • Thank people. “It’s always important to let volunteers know they’re doing important work, and are appreciated. Saying thanks at a training is one more opportunity to get this message across – and doubly important if it gets inadvertently overlooked at the event itself.”

Me, I’m looking forward to putting all my advance knowledge to use on Sunday. (Yes, Sunday.) But no bandaging, this time.