Lessons from organizing events with volunteers

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Over the last couple years I’ve been involved in a fair number of events, almost all of which were organized on a non-profit basis and only with volunteer work (Ignite Berlin, TEDxKreuzberg, atoms&bits Festival, Likemind Berlin…).

Motivation & leadership in volunteer settings In this kind of setting, different rules from “professional” (as in commercial) events apply. Where the team members have no monetary incentives and most certainly no power hierarchy as they do in their day jobs, most of the traditional kinds of sanctions won’t work. (You can’t not pay someone, or threaten to fire them, right?) On the other hand, you can achieve wonderful things if you manage to harness these people’s passion – and you know they’re passionate, why else would they have volunteered in the first place?

There are many good thoughts on volunteer leadership or open leadership out there. Let me quote Chris Messina (writing here about leadership in open source contexts):

It is my belief that good, reflective and responsive leadership is needed for any project to find success. But that leadership need not be hierarchical. Or dominant. Or, most of all, exclusively masculine. And it also can’t be cowardly or cow-tow to the imposing and voluminous voice of the community it serves. That’s why leadership is important; it’s not about power, it’s about clarity of purpose and of seeing things through to their desired conclusion, deterring that which threatens to scuttle the intentions of the group. (…) So, coming back to the meeting last night, we have goals in common, even if the path is not clear. Which is precisely the kind of opportunity in which leadership emerges — the kind that isn’t focused in any one individual but is shared among the individuals in the collective. In a very real sense, it is the BarCamp model of leadership, of self-determination, of personal responsibility and of realizing your own role in consciously creating circumstances for yourself.

That sums it up, really: leadership is important to help the group stay on track, and to help the decision-making process along, to help good decisions emerge from within the group. That said, personally I prefer to work with really busy folks as they tend to be well organized. Or maybe it’s the other way round and I just tend to like to work with certain people who also happen to be very busy. Be it either way, you need to have a strong, diverse and super reliable core team so that everybody can work autonomously where needed and be able to rely on the others to do their job.

Also, make sure to credit everybody’s input wherever possible, and for those volunteers who help out outside the core team, make sure to look after them, manage expectations and break down their tasks to actionable chunks so they won’t get frustrated. Communicate, rather more then less.

When picking the core team, also make sure to know everybody’s motivation: all members’ goals and motivations should dove-tail with the overall goal of the event, otherwise the group will spend too much time on self-organization and too little on the actual event.

Clear vision, goal & expectations Know where you’re headed, and why. Don’t just start organizing, make sure to take the time to figure out a common vision that can serve as a framework for all other pieces. Why do you want to organize this event, and what are your goals? Then, based on these, discuss the expectations. Big event or small, commercial or non-commercial, something to bring friends and family or rather a business type of conference? You don’t want to just keep discussing this all the way up to the event.

Size matters If you can expect large sponsoring, a large event might be for you. Otherwise, keep it simple. There’s enough to worry about once you all get rolling – why put in extra barriers or pressure? Again, be clear of why and how you want to play this thing.

Keep a clear schedule You should have (and openly communicate) a schedule: When do you need to book the location, when announce speakers, when start the list of attendees? At which point do sponsors and media come in? It helps having one person in charge of the schedule who can prod the others if need be.

Get organized This is even more obvious than the others: Get organized! Make lists, agree on the tools and communication channels early on, talk about the frequency of calls/emails/meetups so everybody knows how much time budget to set aside. (My guess: it’ll turn out to be 30% more time-intense than expected.) Switching any of these channels in mid-project creates a bunch of overhead that is really avoidable.

Stick to your plan Once you’re set to go, stick with your plan. Don’t re-visit it and re-start the discussion over and over again. That said, if you notice something doesn’t work out, change it. It’s just a plan.

There will be times where things are running smoothly and times where they aren’t. Make sure to not openly point fingers, but rather discuss any potential issues one a one-to-one basis, preferably face to face. Publicly appreciate the achievements. A few nice words go a long way.

That’s a first summary of some of the things I’ve learned over the years; I might flesh those out at some point and expand the list. Curious to hear about your experiences!

ps. By way of blunt promotion, please allow me to plug a few upcoming events: