They say many hands make light work. At the heart of every association are the volunteers who answer the call to give. As staff, sometimes it's hard to balance the enthusiasm of your members and their desire to be involved, sometimes in staff-directed roles. One way to overcome that challenge is by training your staff on how to work with volunteers. Are you recruiting the right volunteers at the right time for the right jobs in your organization? Are you being clear about how many volunteers you need, what you need them to do, and when?

An association meeting professional generally works with two types of volunteers. The first is the volunteer who wants to come on site and help with the actual meeting functions. These volunteers are a dedicated bunch who are willing to pack conference bags and serve as door greeters, giving directions, hosting speakers, and sometime even working the trade show floor.

The second type of meeting volunteer is answering the call to volunteer on a community service or legacy project that the organization is doing to provide additional value to the community beyond the dollars the attendees leave behind. Many meeting professionals today are adding book drives, trash pickups, home building, and a whole host of other charitable events to their meetings.

No matter what type of volunteer you are working to recruit, retaining and maintaining working relationships with volunteers is a very different skill set than working with your staff, speakers, sponsors, and vendors. Here are seven ways to be more efficient and effective working with volunteers as a part of your conference experience.

  1. Personally ask your organization members to volunteer. Identify one skill that they possess that will make a difference in your organization, and ask them to share that skill with your organization. This assures you get the right person in the right seat at the right time.

  2. Be specific in what you ask your volunteers to do. In the “old” days of volunteering, you could ask someone to be on a committee for an entire year. Now that is less true. Look to task-based volunteering or consider micro-volunteering. (Micro-volunteering is the trend of creating smaller volunteer roles with shorter durations — many as short as under an hour. Many micro-volunteering opportunities can be done from a smartphone.) By asking early and setting the right expectation, you can create a volunteer that leaves as an evangelist for your organization and wants to volunteer every year.

  3. Demonstrate how volunteering plays a huge role in the overall success of your organization. If your conference has a volunteer element without which it cannot survive, demonstrate to that volunteer, for example, how important pre-conference bag stuffing is, and how it contributes to the overall conference experience for each attendee, supplier, speaker, and vendor.

  4. Provide testimonials on how volunteering not only makes your community strong, but how it also provides benefits for the person volunteering.

  5. Be honest. In many cases your organizations cannot do all the work they need to do without volunteer resources. The average volunteer hour today is valued at $20.68. If you add that up over the number of hours each volunteer gives to many events and activities, your organization's gatherings couldn't happen if you had to go out and purchase that labor.

  6. Talk technology. Use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and your own social media to recruit, retain, and maintain volunteer leaders. The simpler you make it to say yes to volunteering, the more workers you'll get. Are you building volunteer opportunities that can be done by smartphone? You should be; that is where volunteerism is moving.

  7. Appreciate your volunteers. Whether they are helping with meeting logistics or on a community-service event, volunteerism today is an extra special gift. Everyone is working twice as hard — and in many cases, for less pay. When someone says yes to giving back to your organization, take the time to send a note or call them. Not everyone needs to see their name in lights or walk across the stage. Be authentic and honest with your gratitude and they will leave wanting more.

Volunteerism at your association's meetings is an opportunity to build community around your organizational objectives. The volunteer experience has a huge influence on member retention, recruitment, and word of mouth about your association. Your volunteers, when treated correctly using these seven steps, give you the opportunity to create evangelists for your association, lighten the load on staff on site, and even add a community-service event beyond your meeting. By looking at volunteers as partners in success, you will create meeting experiences that are memorable and make a positive difference.

Holly Duckworth, CAE, CMP, is an association and meeting industry thought leader. Her company, Leadership Solutions International (, provides speaking, coaching, and training for organizations worldwide on the future of effective leadership and volunteerism. Look for her book CTRL+ALT+Delete: How to Reboot Your Organization for Success. Follow her on Twitter @hduckworth.