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I realize this is quite broad, so will give specifics to my situation and hopefully users can post some helpful tips to the community.

I run a conference that takes place every two months or so (future events are only confirmed once the last one has finished). For each event we need a couple of higher level organizers to help prep and then maybe half a dozen volunteers for the actual day. Of course, it is important that the people that come on board are reliable, mature and able to get the job done without too much hand holding.

In recruiting these type of quality people how does one separate the wheat from the chaff?

NB: Not that this is relevant, but everyone involved in these events are doing it for free, including myself. The event is of a relatively high-calibre which usually sells out in a few hours.

  • Why are the volunteers not being paid? – Amy B Aug 5 '12 at 11:58
  • @Coronatus To keep costs down so as to make the event as accessible as possible. But is this question relevant? Thanks for the interest. – Eric Brotto Aug 5 '12 at 15:28
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    @EricBrotto Could you describe a little bit about how the volunteers you already have (who have helped out successfully) were selected? – jcmeloni Aug 5 '12 at 15:55
  • unpaid, reliable, and professional? a professional will almost always prioritize the needs of paying clients over non-paying clients (thus from the perspective of non-paying clients the professional is not reliable). – emory Aug 6 '12 at 17:26
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    I think @Coronatus 's question is relevant because it is pointed at the volunteer's motivation. Why do people volunteer for your conferences? Figure that out and either maximize that or change it in ways that encourage more reliable/professional volunteers. I'm shocked that you can find any volunteers for something that happens every time months and cannot be scheduled further in advance than two months. – David Navarre Aug 6 '12 at 19:44
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One advantage that you do have is in the regularity in which you hold these sorts of events. With the events happening once every two months, it's quite possible for you to build up a list of previously effective volunteers.

When it comes time to recruit volunteers for the next event, start with the people who have experience working with you and who have done a good job. Consider incentives that may help encourage these people to continue to participate:

  • Offer free stuff, like a t-shirt or gift cards for volunteering 2 or 3 times in a row or for doing a really good job. Just don't hand them out at the event so you don't upset anyone who didn't do as good of a job. Remember, they are doing this for free, even if they weren't the best volunteers.

  • If you frequently hire for in-house positions, put these people on a preferred list so that, if they have the skills for the position, they are given preferential treatment by HR. Just check with your local laws to make sure this is something you can consider when evaluating two, equal candidates.

  • You don't say whether or not you interview volunteers or if people just randomly show up, but you may want to consider a screening process, if you don't already have one.

  • Advertise, if possible, or use your networking contacts to get the word out that you need help. The more people you can interview, the more likely you are to find good volunteers. This is more difficult since they aren't paid, so the ability to screen volunteers like you would when hiring paid employees may be tougher if the pool of potential volunteers is small.

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When it comes to volunteer recruiting, I tend to find it even harder. You can't just look for smart people who get things done, but you need smart people, who get things, who have and will give the time required. Expectation alignnment, and selective recruiting are even more important in this case, as the "payoff" is far more elusive, as is the structure by which most people will quit a volunteer position.

I've been senior staff at a fair share of conventions, and done other volunteer management, and my takeaways is that in this case, the best volunteers are the ones who are tapped on the shoulder by their brethren or the event coordinator themselves. I don't see wide-scale recruitment as the best option. Tricks in the past that have either roped me in or worked for me:

  • Promote from within - ie, draw from your existing base those people who are already motivated and capable. Frequent attendees, excellent volunteers - those are your best bets.

  • Power of the personal invite - have your current crew tap other like minded, similarly skilled folks on the shoulder. Maybe they are part of a similar but competing group, maybe they are just skilled folks you know from another place.

As important as recruitment is maintenance. Volunteers serve because the love it, and are passionate about the project... cause they certainly don't get paid! Be aware of why they love it, what they get out of it, and how to not step on that while facilitating a relief of any pain points. In most organizations I've worked in, paid or unpaid, the manager is 50% of the experience - if the head of everything is not an inspirational leader, you won't get the people you need for the work. After that, it's culture and job fit - people will keep volunteering when they are a part of something they like - the social connection is really important here.

As much as the focus seems like it should be recruitment and selection, I think you want to spend an equal if not greater time on whether or not you have an organization that the talented people you are looking for will want to be part of...

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    If you build it, they will come? – David Navarre Aug 6 '12 at 21:44
  • Yep. And while it's true most of the time that keeping the awesome ones you have is easier than finding new awesome ones - IMO it's extra true in volunteer work. – bethlakshmi Aug 7 '12 at 12:52

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