This article was adapted from a tutorial held at a past RCMA conference. The tutorial was led by Carol Werchan, executive administrator, conventions and meetings, International Lutheran Laymen's League, St. Louis; Gary Bowen, business manager, General Conference, General Council on Finance and Administration, The United Methodist Church, Evanston, Ill.; and Sandra Flournoy, director of meetings and logistics, National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Nashville, Tenn.

When Working with Inexperienced Volunteers

  • Realize that part of your job as a meeting planner is training — not telling people to do things, but training them how to do the job.

  • Tell volunteers that they can come to you at any time for help and understanding. Let them know that you're open to them. Be willing to sit down individually and listen to their questions and problems.

  • If volunteers need to visit a facility or attend a special event to help them in their role, encourage them to do so, and support them in it.

  • If budgets are part of volunteers' responsibilities, work through the budget in detail so they understand how it works.

  • Be sure volunteers have complete instructions. Don't let them start a job until they know exactly what their duties and limitations are. Where appropriate, develop checklists and job descriptions for key roles.

  • Prepare a timeline with details on when every piece of the task should be completed. Then, follow through by monitoring progress.

  • Make them aware of the importance of their job performance. In case they have questions, tell them who their contact person is.

  • Let them know that they have accepted a responsibility, and that it is critical for them to complete that responsibility. Help them know that they are doing God's work.

  • As you hold the planning meetings that include inexperienced volunteers, set ground rules so nobody is made to feel stupid.

  • Be intentional about making the work fun — laugh together and enjoy each other.

  • Give inexperienced volunteers the opportunity to interact with and ask questions in person of other people in the organization. Sometimes it can be difficult for new volunteers to pick up the phone and call another person with a question.

  • Let them know that their dependence is on God, and that God has given them their talents to do this job.

Limited-Experience Volunteers

Limited-experience volunteers have some level of familiarity with the area they've chosen. Often, these are members of a local religious organization that is lending volunteer support to a national body.

  • Set the parameters within which the local volunteers must work; what volunteers are allowed to do within their organizations might be different from the protocol you must follow.

  • Keep an open-door policy for volunteers. Don't give them the feeling you are untouchable. Remember, these volunteers are giving their time.

  • Maintain the nurturing, caring character of a good parent. If you don't, it's going to be very hard for volunteers to feel they are a viable part of the team.

  • Remember that volunteers are not professionals. You as a meeting planner live and breathe the work. The volunteers do not. Be very explicit. If you say, “I need a table in room 13,” do you mean a skirted table or a draped table? Does the volunteer know the difference? If you ask a volunteer to “grab the BEO from the fax machine,” explain that a BEO is a banquet event order.

  • Develop a mission statement for volunteers and communicate it consistently and often during the meeting.

  • Keep the goal in mind: for God to be glorified in the conference or meeting. To reinforce this, begin each day with a time for prayer.

Recurring, Specialized-Knowledge Volunteers

These volunteers include computer-network personnel, publishing experts, and AV teams.

  • It might be hard to believe, but these volunteers look forward to working 20-hour days at your meeting for an entire week or more. But this dedication only happens if you make them feel that they're doing something worthwhile.

  • Consider paying for the transportation and housing of specialized-knowledge volunteers who are coming from around the country to work at a meeting. You may find that some of these people will turn around and donate their expense checks to the organization.

Other Valuable Tips

  • If you're planning a national meeting that involves local volunteers, one of your biggest challenges is communication. To solve this, have the chair of the local volunteer committee be part of your national conference-planning team. Your organization might not allow local volunteers to sign contracts on behalf of the national organization, for example; these meetings will give you the opportunity to share that sort of critical information.

  • When you have a disruptive volunteer, one who is not staying within the parameters of the job, give that person multiple opportunities to get it right. But when a situation begins to affect the morale of other volunteers or the quality of the experience for meeting attendees, you might have to consider moving the person to a different role or limiting the scope of the person's responsibility.

  • Paying attention to the concerns and needs of volunteers and supporting them as they do their jobs is paramount. At the end of a meeting, volunteers want to feel that their service has been valued and valuable.