The realities of being a volunteer co-ordinator Reflecting on the joys and challenges of working with volunteers

Shortly after returning to school to study communications, I found myself co-ordinating volunteers for Arts on the Ave (AOTA), which runs Kaleido and Deep Freeze Festivals as well as the Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse.

Volunteers are seriously the best, and some of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with. However, working with people who donate their time presents some unique challenges; recruitment, training and retention are ongoing challenges for many organizations.

For a lot of groups, the biggest challenge to working with volunteers, and often the first one they encounter, is how to even find volunteers. Luckily for us in Edmonton, there’s a pretty decent range of websites and organizations to help connect would-be volunteers with the organizations that need them, such as GoVolunteer.ca and the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (ECVO). A quick Google search will yield dozens of other websites. We’re also pretty blessed in our neighbourhood to have some great collaboration between organizations that are willing to help each other out.

Of course, recruitment is just the first step. The far more challenging part was making sure volunteers were placed in a suitable role where they felt happy and satisfied in the work they were doing. As a volunteer co-ordinator, you want people to feel invested and empowered and be part of the team. At the same time, when you’re not paying someone, a certain level of patience and understanding is required. Setting clear expectations right from the start helps. It’s important to really get to know your volunteers and why they want or like to volunteer. Volunteers should be in a role where they enjoy themselves, but they should also understand their role and responsibilities and how they’re contributing to the organization’s success.

With large events like annual festivals, you only see many of your volunteers once a year. Because of the sheer breadth of tasks required in putting together and running a successful festival, it can take a few tries before you figure out the best fit for everyone. Believe it or not, after a couple of years, even the momentous task of knowing, scheduling, training and (most importantly) appreciating several hundred volunteers becomes less daunting.

If I could offer only one piece of advice in working with volunteers, it would be this: some volunteers are truly stars. They will surprise you with their generosity and willingness to make time to help with almost anything and everything, but be careful not to over-work your star volunteers. It’s easy to get into the habit of always calling on these people when the pressure’s on because someone cancels at the last minute or when you otherwise desperately need help. But I can’t stress the importance of not calling on the same people too much. Even the best volunteers can burn out when they start to feel over-worked and under-appreciated.

I really enjoyed my time working with volunteers, but after a few years I finished school, found a job in communications and had to leave behind my many wonderful volunteers. However, I still often find myself drawing upon the varied skills I acquired as a volunteer co-ordinator. Would I do it again? Probably. For now though, I’m content to once again be able to volunteer myself.

Brendan Van Alstine

Brendan Van Alstine

Brendan is the former volunteer coordinator for Arts on the Ave. He has a background in social work and communications, and he has worked for a wide variety of volunteer-dependent organizations.
Brendan Van Alstine

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