Volunteer Coordinator Tips & Strategies (Tutorial, Guide, 101)

Here are some volunteer coordinator tips and strategies. Based on Tim Bradley's experience as a volunteer coordinator for several years.

Tip 1 - Combine shifts

Let's say you have an expo. Many volunteer coordinators would make one shift per job. For example, packet pickup, shirt distribution, greeters, info booth, etc.

My recommendation would be to combine any shifts that have the same location and similar times into one "mega shift". For example, "Friday Expo AM". The idea is to get everybody on site, THEN assign them a job.

Mega shifts have a lot of benefits, including...

  • Less clutter in your reports and on the volunteer signup page.
  • Easier to tell if a shift has enough people signed up.
  • Less unique volunteer instructions e-mails that need to be created.
  • Reports become more accurate. Attrition rates stabilize and become less volatile.
  • Big groups can easily find open shifts because shift sizes are large.
  • On event day, volunteers can be reassigned easily.
  • On event day, you can check volunteers in faster because you don't have to check a list and remind them what shift they signed up for.

This website has a "Private Notes" column on the "Add Shifts" and "Edit Shifts" pages to help with keeping track of what smaller areas need volunteers from your general volunteer pool.

Tip 2 - Make sure your website tracks groups and group leaders

Even if your volunteer registration website doesn't support creating groups, make sure you add some custom fields to track "group name" and "group leader yes/no". This is very important data. You can do some important things with this data.

  • Send extra recruitment e-mails to last year's group leaders
  • Keep an extra e-mail list of just volunteer group leaders
  • Keep track of signups for each group, so you can see which groups need follow up and which groups will flake

Our website keeps track of this data for you. You can easily see all group leader contact information and how many group members have signed up on the "Group Report" page, and you can pull their e-mail addresses using the "E-Mail List" page. You can also send their group leaders reminder e-mails with the click of one button on the "E-Mail Group Reminders" page.

Tip 3 - Use a 50% (x2) buffer for volunteer shifts

A bunch of volunteers that sign up for a volunteer shift will not show up, so it is important to add a buffer when creating the # of slots for a volunteer shift.

This website has a buffer calculator built in for you. When adding or editing shifts, type in an accurate, unpadded "target number of volunteers". Then set an attrition rate on the Edit Event Page. The website will automatically create extra slots for each volunteer shift based on the attrition rate you entered.

What should you set your attrition rate to?

  • We recommend setting the attrition rate to 50% (x2). I've found this to be an accurate number for both individual volunteers and groups in the Los Angeles area.
  • Set the attrition rate to 0% (x1) if you want to build your own buffers into each volunteer shift.

Tip 4 - Volunteers don't mind long shifts

I have surveyed volunteers before, asking them to type in their preferred # of hours for a shift. Over 50% of volunteers responded with a number 5 hours or higher. The conclusion? Don't be afraid to make shifts that are 5-8 hours long.

This is especially useful for difficult to fill weekday shifts. For example, many volunteers are in high school and can't volunteer on Fridays. By only needing to recruit 1 shift of volunteers for a Friday expo instead of 2, you have a much better chance of filling the shift and not being short on volunteers.

One caveat - if you're going to have long shifts, make sure you feed the volunteers a meal, and that you have plenty of water and snacks.

Tip 5 - Don't open volunteer registration too early

I usually put an item in my calendar to open volunteer registration about 16 weeks out, and begin volunteer e-mail blasts about 11 weeks out.

This website has a great tool to calculate these calendar dates. Simply hover over the Date column in the Company Report to see the 16 week out and 11 week out dates for that event.

Why I don't recommend opening volunteer registration any earlier than 16 weeks:

  • I've tried opening volunteer registration very early before, and I noticed that not many people sign up.
  • I'm worried that the people that do sign up will forget. Would you remember if you signed up for something 6 months in advance? People forget, and plans change.
  • In the case of groups signing up very early, it's possible that their officers will change (new school year) and the new officers will not know about the volunteering.
  • Event details and shift details may not have stabilized yet, requiring big changes to your volunteer plan.

Tip 6 - Don't close volunteer registration

I see volunteer coordinators do this sometimes. They'll pick a date a couple of days before the event and completely close volunteer registration. However, my philosophy is, if there are open volunteer slots, let volunteers keep signing up, even if it is the night before.

Just make sure to send out volunteer instructions e-mails to the stragglers. Our website has a great tool for this. Go to your event, and click on "E-Mail Vol Instructions". Then each time you send a batch of e-mails, make sure to click "Mark All Shifts As E-Mailed". Then, if new volunteers sign up after you sent out your volunteer instructions e-mails, they will show up on the list, and you can do another e-mailing a couple of days later to catch the stragglers.

Tip 7 - Order shirts using generic percentages

I recommend ignoring your volunteer list, and using the following generic percentages for volunteer shirt orders.

  • S - 28%
  • M - 30%
  • L - 24%
  • XL - 13%
  • 2X - 5%

Why not export your volunteer signups to Excel and then count the shirt size column?

  • Half your volunteers that signed up won't show up, throwing off your counts.
  • A bunch of volunteers that didn't sign up (such as group members) will show up, throwing off your counts.
  • You need to do the volunteer shirt order weeks in advance of the event, before everybody has signed up, which throws off your counts.

Tip 8 - Make sure to order some 2X shirts

Volunteers that wear this size t-shirt will appreciate you having it!

I usually don't order XS or 3X though. S, M, L, XL, 2X is a good variety that will give almost everybody a good option.

Tip 9 - Use a 45% buffer when ordering shirts

To get the total number of volunteer shirts to order, I recommend you take your total target number of volunteers and multiply it by 1.45. This is a 45% buffer.

Why is not running out of shirts important?

  • Volunteers don't like when you run out of shirts or even sizes. The souvenir shirt is important to them.
  • Having volunteers not wearing a shirt can be confusing to staff, participants, and security.

Why order more shirts than there are volunteers?

  • If your event fills up completely, you may get more than the "Target # Of Volunteers". One of my events that I checked had 25% more volunteers sign in than signed up on the website.
  • Individual check in locations can have 45% or more than signed up on the website.
  • There are 5 different sizes, so you need some extra sizes of each shirt to ensure you don't run out of a size at a particular check in location.

If your event is budget conscious, the lowest buffer I'd recommend is 1.25.

Tip 10 - Do not give out your extra volunteer shirts at the event

I've been burned by this before. There are two things in particular to watch out for:

  • Non-volunteers asking for volunteer shirts, putting them on, using them to get into secured areas (such as a participant t-shirt distribution area or the finish line), and then stealing items (such as participant t-shirts).
  • Depending on your event, the volunteer shirts may have some monetary value. Certain people may want to get a hold of small or large quantities of volunteer shirts from your event, then sell them on eBay and make a profit for themselves.

Tip 11 - On your website, put the volunteer button front and center

Make sure that you have plenty of links to your volunteer signup page on your website, and to make sure that these links are front and center.

Placing a text link to the volunteer signup website on a volunteer page that is buried in a menu is not enough. You want to make it as easy for volunteers to find the signup link as possible, and you want to make sure that there are as few pages between the home page and the volunteer signup link as possible.

Try some of these tips to make sure your volunteer page can easily be found by volunteers:

  • Place a "Sign Up To Volunteer" button right under your "Register Today" button.
  • Place a link to your volunteer registration website in your menu bar, directly clickable, not in a menu.
  • Consider not having a volunteer page between your homepage and your volunteer registration website. Consider just linking directly to the volunteer registration website.

Tip 12 - Feed your expo volunteers a meal

I'd recommend snacks, water, and meals for all expo and packet pickup shifts.

Pizza is both the cheapest and easiest. If you get $5.99 mediums from Dominos, and you assume 2 slices per volunteer, that's only about $2 per volunteer. And they deliver directly to your event, and have good hours.

Another inexpensive option is platters of 30 4" subs from Subway. Also works out to $2 per volunteer, but you usually have to pick it up.

Tip 13 - Feed your start/finish line volunteers breakfast

For event morning shifts, I recommend that you buy some breakfast pastries (danishes, muffins, etc.) from the grocery store and bring them to the event.

If your event has a finish line with runner food and water, then encourage the volunteers to snack on these items during their shifts. Trying to ban volunteers from eating the finish line food and water is not a good idea -- your buffers should be able to handle it, and it would give the volunteers a really bad experience.

I do not recommend coffee, as you either have to find a 24 hour coffee place and pick it up, or you need electricity and a giant percolator.

Tip 14 - Feed your water station volunteers snacks

1-2 snacks per water station volunteer will help ensure they get enough to eat during their shift. Volunteers that get food have a better experience, and are less likely to leave early.

Tip 15 - Your volunteer email list is worth its weight in gold

By far, blowing all other volunteer recruitment techniques out of the water, your company's "master volunteer list" is going to be your best recruitment tool.

Make sure to save the e-mail addresses of every volunteer from every one of your company's events. Combine them into a master volunteer list, add them to a mass e-mail website like MailChimp or Constant Contact, and send several e-mail blasts for each event you need volunteers for. If you don't have a combined list yet, go back through your records and create one.

Our website has a great tool for creating master volunteer lists. Once you host some events on our website, you can go to the "Master Volunteer List" page, and it will generate a master volunteer list (alphabetized, without duplicates) for you.

Tip 16 - Master volunteer list not working? Try these ideas.

If your master volunteer list isn't getting you enough volunteers, blast your company's "master participant list". Master participant lists are usually much larger than master volunteer lists, and you can tap into friends and family of participants and injured participants.

If you still need volunteers, try e-mail blasting an event discount or comp to a master participant list. I recommend offering a discount or comp for a future event so that you don't have to give any refunds for your current event.

Tip 17 - What to do if you don't have any volunteer e-mail addresses yet?

Need volunteers for an event in a new area? You don't have any e-mail addresses yet? Well first off, look into doing an e-mail trade with an event production company in the area. Like I mentioned above, e-mail blasts are king.

In addition to that, start googling for key clubs, LEO clubs, red cross clubs, national honors societies, ROTC's, circle K's, and alpha gamma sigmas. Scrape as many e-mail addresses as you can and shoot the presidents and service VP's an e-mail with a link to your group signup page.

Tip 18 - Lots of recruitment techniques don't work

E-mail is king. Nothing is nearly as efficient or effective as e-mail.

Here is a list of techniques I've tried that don't significantly increase my volunteer numbers:

  • Hired a guy to do 100 cold calls to potential group leaders
  • Facebook ads
  • Posting on volunteer sites like VolunteerMatch
  • Posting on general sites like CraigsList or EventBrite
  • Social media posts

Tip 19 - Paying groups can work, but it's hit or miss

I've talked to a couple of race directors and companies that think that if they have a big volunteer group donation budget, they won't have any volunteer problems. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

I've found that most volunteer group leaders in Los Angeles are not motivated by donations, perhaps because a lot of them are high school clubs. I've sent out an e-mail blast to my entire group leader list before, offering donations for an event, and gotten no replies.

However, there are a couple of groups I've found that are large, reliable, and are motivated by donations. 2 of them are high school ROTC's, 1 is a Young Marines group, and 1 of them is a high school college club. When you run across these organizations, make a note and add them to a special list. Then you can reach out to these groups in emergencies.

Tip 20 - Have one goal per e-mail blast

Don't try to do too many things with one e-mail blast or social media post. Each e-mail blast you send out should have ONE goal. It should recruit volunteers for ONE event, not multiple events. It should try to get JUST volunteer signups, not volunteer and participant signups.

Tip 21 - Do not include minor links in your e-mail blasts

I sent out an e-mail blast recently with a giant "Click Here For More Info" button, and I analyzed the traffic. Know what I found? That the "Click Here For More Info" button got 1 click, and some tiny unimportant text link toward the top of the e-mail got 4 clicks.

The verdict? Don't distract your reader with minor links. Every link you place in the e-mail blast should be to your target page. Don't include "minor links" such as the homepage of your event website.

Tip 22 - Always include an image in posts & e-mail blasts

While a lot of e-mail clients block images by default (Outlook), a lot of them also display images. And having an image is the difference between your e-mail being a wall of text versus your e-mail being pleasing to the eye.

Try to take pictures of volunteers during your event and save them for next year. The best pictures can be used as the centerpieces of your e-mail blasts.

If you don't have pictures of volunteers, borrow photos, banners, and logos from the event's main website.

Tip 23 - If volunteer group leader wants a specific shift, squeeze them in

Sometimes a shift will get full, and I will try to move groups around to distribute everybody evenly. Or sometimes a volunteer group leader will ask for a specific shift that is already full.

In general, if a volunteer group leader wants a specific shift and they don't get it, and you try to place them in a different shift, they will drop completely rather than doing a shift they don't want to do. So try your best to accommodate their requests.

Tip 24 - Always ask for CELL phone, not just phone

Having the volunteer's cell phone number instead of a home phone or work phone has two advantages. 1) If a group leader isn't responding to your e-mails (spam filter), you can text them. 2) If you need to contact the person on race day, they will not be at home or in the office so only their cell phone number will work.

Tip 25 - Have course monitors check in at a central location

Course monitors are a type of volunteer that cities sometimes request. They stand out on course and they make sure that vehicles do not ignore barricades and drive onto the course.

In my opinion, the best way to handle course monitors is to have them check in at a central volunteer check-in, get their t-shirt, give them a printed map and an orientation, then have a staff member (with an official vehicle pass) drive them to and from their spots.

Trying to have course monitors drive directly to their spots is not usually a good idea. They don't get their t-shirt, they never get to meet a supervisor, you have to create driving and parking directions for each location, there is a high chance that several spots will not get any volunteers due to attrition, and they may not be able to get through road closures.

Tip 26 - Try not to have shifts before 4AM

You'd be surprised how early volunteers will get up to help with a running event. For race day, I'd say volunteer shifts starting 5AM or later will present no problems recruiting volunteers. 4:30AM and even 4AM start times are common and quite do-able, and some groups will be willing to help out at these times.

But go earlier than that, such as 3:30AM, 3AM, or 2:30AM, and you will start to have lots of trouble recruiting volunteers. Keep in mind that many volunteers are in high school, and they have to wake up their parents to give them a ride. So the parents are getting woken up too. And in addition, parents may not want to leave a volunteer in a strange area of the city by themselves at this time in the morning.

So whenever possible, try to start your volunteer shifts no earlier than 4AM. And if you have a very early event that needs volunteers before then? You may need to hire staff to fill some of these early positions.

Tip 27 - Volunteer cancellations

If an individual volunteer cancels before you've sent out the volunteer instructions e-mail, delete them from the database. If they cancel after you've sent out the volunteer instructions e-mail, leave them in the database to save yourself some work.

If a group cancels, always delete the group from the database for load balancing reasons.

In all cases, reply to their e-mail with a simple "No problem. Thanks for letting me know."

Don't have an attitude when volunteers cancel. Attrition is attrition. Even if they're putting you in a bad spot, it happens, and there's nothing that can be done about it. Having a good attitude will help give them a good experience and possibly motivate them to volunteer for future events.

Tip 28 - "Hand Picking" Volunteers

Sometimes I'll get a request to recruit a small number of "hand picked" volunteers. And there is often the insinuation that this is easier than recruiting large numbers of volunteers. And sometimes it'll be paired with a request to not use e-mail blasts or not use a volunteer registration website.

Unfortunately, there is no way to really recruit "better than normal" volunteers. If you need a higher caliber of worker than a volunteer, then you probably need to hire some paid staff.

Also, not using e-mail blasts and/or not using a volunteer registration website wouldn't be a good idea. It would force the volunteer coordinator to not use their most efficient recruiting tools, which makes their job harder.

Tip 29 - Volunteer Instructions

I like to send out volunteer instructions via e-mail on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of event week.

Around Wednesday, if you haven't sent anything out, volunteers start e-mailing and asking about the volunteer instructions. If there is a delay, you can send out a mass e-mail saying that volunteer instructions will be e-mailed soon.

I create the volunteer instructions in Microsoft Word and save as PDF. I include screenshots of Google Maps and of diagrams. I give a street address, mention the food/water/snack plan, and give contact information.

I recommend spending a lot of time on your volunteer instructions. The more planning you do and the better you write your volunteer instructions, the less e-mails and phone calls you will get, and the less problems on event morning.

Example: Click Here

What do YOU think?

I'm always happy to talk shop and trade ideas with other Volunteer Coordinators. Do you disagree with anything I said? Do you think I should add something? Shoot me an e-mail at .

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