In yesterday’s post, I talked about the importance of defining the win when it comes to pulling off a large scale event. Knowing the event’s nature, the budget you have to work with, and the mechanics of the event itself will do plenty in helping you prepare. But for those of us in the guest services world, there will perhaps be no greater component to event planning than getting the right volunteers in the right places.

That’s why step two of the Dancing with the Elephant series is to develop your systems. Specifically, your systems for determining, inviting, assigning, and training volunteers. Again, using Christmas at DPAC as our model, here are the systems and steps we followed to make sure we had the right vols in the right spot:

1. Figure out which teams are needed, and how many on each team. In a new venue, this is a key question, and we had to do a couple of walk throughs and a few days of plotting to figure out the answer. Facility layout determines volunteer need, and a facility the size of DPAC was certainly no exception. Using floor plans, seating sections, numbers of doors, physical location of parking garages, and even the street layout of downtown Durham, we determined that each service needed 153 First Impressions volunteers broken down into 12 sub-teams.

2. Hand pick your team leaders and key volunteers. My right hand man through all of Christmas at DPAC was Josh Lawrence, a First Impressions intern who oversees our Brier Creek South Venue as well as assisting with special events. Josh was the official FI Team Director at DPAC, though I was also there to offer helpful annoying suggestions.

We then asked full time pastoral staff to serve as team leaders for four out of the five services, since that was the staff expectation for DPAC anyway. While it’s true that meant we overlooked our seasoned, every-week FI volunteer leaders, I knew that many of these folks would be out of town and/or couldn’t commit to that expectation so soon before Christmas. (One benefit to this was that we only had to train one set of team leaders, rather than five sets of team leaders. And the longer that leader served, the better they got at anticipating every need.) So we went to particular staff and asked them to be head over particular teams, and then we spent time making sure they knew what we expected of them (more on that later).

But then we asked our seasoned volunteers to serve on their normal teams as much as they could. Having their expertise meant that the DPAC services carried the same DNA as a regular service at one of our campuses.

3. Push service opportunities and plug the spreadsheet. We started inviting people to serve at the same time we began promoting DPAC (about four to six weeks out). Volunteer sign up happened on the Christmas at DPAC website, which pushed volunteers to a Wufoo form where they could choose the service they wanted to work as well as pick between the Summit Kids or First Impressions teams. This form closed 48 hours prior to the first event to give us ample opportunity to place all the last-minute sign ups.

And then we began populating the DPAC Volunteer Spreadsheet, which was a panoramic view of where we needed volunteers. Our rule of thumb was that we wouldn’t staff any team for any one service more than 50% full until all of them reached that halfway point. Further, volunteers couldn’t choose the specific sub-team where they served. Allowing that creates tons of confusion and alterations for “special circumstances.” We’ve found that it’s easier to address those individual needs after the initial assignment, rather than giving too many options at the outset.

One more thing: we kept the spreadsheet on Google Drive, which gave all of our volunteers real-time access to the frequent edits. Only Josh and I had editorial rights, but anybody could view the changes as soon as we made them, using the original link they’d been sent.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. By the time Christmas at DPAC was over, not one single person said they’d suffered from a lack of communication. :) Volunteers received an automated message as soon as they signed up, letting them know we had their information and would be in contact at least one week prior to the event (that gave us a window to make changes and refine teams up to the last minute). Once the initial assignments had been made on the spreadsheet, we sent another email with a link to both the spreadsheet and a four page document of detailed instructions on everything from guest services philosophy to dress code.

In addition, we sent a couple of brief reminders and updates just prior to both days of DPAC, letting volunteers know of some pertinent last-minute changes.

For team leaders, they got all of the information above, plus a 28 page leader guide (I’m not even kidding) to get us all on the same page. That guide included specific instructions for each team, facility maps, and volunteer placement grids for seating, entry doors, and sidewalk teams. We also asked all team leaders to meet the day prior to the event to do a two hour walk through and orientation at DPAC. In turn, they took that information and trained their teams when they showed up prior to their shift.

5. Prepare for every contingency. As with any event, we knew there would be moments where we’d have to roll with the punches. But we did everything possible to make sure we anticipated every punch before it landed. Here are a few key areas that helped all five services run smoothly:

  • Count on an 80% retention rate. Lots of people get jazzed up about signing up to serve at a big event, but we’ve found that only about 80% actually surface. Whether it’s sickness, forgetfulness, or last-minute schedule changes, we knew that we needed to plan for that drop off.
  • Not all services get all teams. The timing of a Christmas Eve service means that a lot of people want to attend on Christmas Eve, but few want to serve on Christmas Eve. From the very beginning we knew that we might have to scrap a few teams for the 2 PM and 5 PM services and reassign those volunteers to more key teams (you’ll see that reflected on the volunteer spreadsheet).
  • Make sure vols know where to go when they get there. Nothing is more stressful than having 153 volunteers seek out the FI Director to ask “Where was I supposed to go?” That’s why we had predetermined meeting spots for each team. But we also had a Volunteer Headquarters (VHQ) in the main lobby, where vols could go to check their coats and purses and ask any questions they had. Our ladies who staffed that VHQ knew every location of every team, and had real-time access to the volunteer spreadsheet so they could both find the vol’s spot and sign up anyone who walked up willing to serve.

Other posts in this series: