Five lessons from volunteering

Volunteering can mean different things to different people. Columnist Rob Jackson offers his thoughts after his experiences in Australia

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

On 1 November I had the privilege of volunteering at the Adelaide Mini Maker Faire. The event showcased local maker culture and was the largest so far in Australia, with an estimated 5,100 visitors exploring the work of more than 100 makers, from wood-turners to tinsmiths to 3D-printers to movie prop makers.

Mini Maker Faires have been happening across the world since 2006 and are run under licence to US-based MAKE: magazine. Despite an apparent absence of any mention on the Mini Maker Faire home site, these events are often entirely volunteer run. The Adelaide event was organised by a committee of volunteers that included my sister and her husband (hence my involvement) and a wider team of volunteers was engaged to ensure the event was a success.

In this blog I want to share five lessons from my volunteer experience in Adelaide that I think we can apply in all volunteer programmes:

1. Have a variety of great volunteer roles

The organising team in Adelaide had a wide range of volunteer roles for people to work in, including setting up and packing down, running welcome stalls, helping makers bring their equipment onto the site and even distributing rubbish and recycling bins across the site (a job yours truly thoroughly enjoyed – perhaps I should have been a bin man?!).

2. Match people to roles

All volunteers were asked about the kind of roles they wanted to do and every effort was made to match people to them. I spent most of the day before the event working with a team of people to place chairs and tables across the site for the maker stalls and then on the day was allocated a radio and a golf buggy so I could transport people and materials (including bins) quickly across the site.

3. Be flexible

When roles for volunteers didn’t work out, people moved between different roles. When people didn’t turn up for their volunteer shifts, others were re-deployed to fill gaps. Everyone was encouraged to adapt, to use their own initiative and to muck in together to make the day a success. Importantly, the event organisers led by example, getting stuck in with even the most mundane tasks.

4. Take care of your volunteers

Considerable care was taken to make sure volunteers got a break during the day, finding time to eat, drink and visit the maker exhibitions. More importantly, volunteers who were assigned to parking roles in the South Australian sun were properly equipped for the task, supplied with plenty of sun cream (essential!) and rotated between car parks so they could have comfort breaks and not just be out in a parking lot all day long.

5. Give fabulous recognition

The organisers of the Adelaide Mini Maker Faire took every opportunity to thank the volunteers throughout the event. Not only were we regularly thanked but a party was thrown for the makers the night beforehand, to which volunteers were invited. More importantly, volunteers were viewed as an essential part of the event’s success, something I think many volunteer involving organisation forget, relegating volunteers to nice-to-haves rather than essential team members.

My Australian volunteering experience reminded me that we need to transfer the learning from our own volunteering to our day jobs. What lessons (good & bad) from your volunteering experiences would you share with other leaders and managers of volunteers to help them improve their practice?

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