Feb 21, 2020

How to Keep Volunteers Happy from Stable View Owner Barry Olliff

By Barry Olliff - Stable View Farm
Photo courtesy of Stable View.

Volunteers by definition do not need an HR department to support them. The trouble is that in the world we are in - faster and faster, less loyalty, little spare time - volunteers are increasingly difficult to find.

Let’s take a step back to the latter part of the 20th century, “volunteerism” had been something that many of us had been brought up with. In many instances it was the norm – “go and give some of your time,” I can recall my parents saying. I did it, that was the way it worked back then.

Fast forward to 2020, you only have to read [social media] and the regular email appeals for volunteers to see that volunteers are not just a dying breed, but there are fewer and fewer youngsters coming along to take their place.

This is not just an eventing problem. It is a problem felt by many pastimes around the country and across the developed world. So, if this is a structural problem, what is there that we can do about it? How can eventing survive when some events need over 100 volunteers and most need over 50?

Photo courtesy of Stable View.

From my experience at Stable View, this position is much more sensitive than I believe most of us realize. From what we have found, a good volunteer coordinator is progressive, possibly comes from outside the sport of eventing, has experience on the sell side, understands HR, is good at public relations, is easy to work with, and is prepared to try new ideas. From my own background I know if there is less of something (in this case volunteers) then the price probably goes up. So, what do we do?

The first thing is to write a notional business plan for volunteers. That business plan addresses what we intend to sell, who we are going to sell to, also, what will the product cost. In essence, this is a ‘volunteer identification and retention package.’ Second, as mentioned above, make sure you have the right volunteer coordinator. Third, as either the event organizer or the owner, make sure that they know that you will listen and respond to their ideas. Fourth, I’m sure that there is no “One Size Fits All.” Different venues have different assets to offer, barter or sell to volunteers. Fifth, think through all the assets you could call on to create your customized volunteer identification and retention package.

What follows are a few ideas - most of these are tried and tested, some are new.

Find a sponsor for volunteers - [Event Name] Volunteers Sponsored by True Value. Gives True Value exposure to 50 or 100 volunteers, separate from being announced multiple times per day. A sponsor mention would also be provided in the event program.

Use schooling show passes as an incentive for volunteers - This is an excellent tool for getting riders to act as volunteers. If the schooling show is well run, jumps and footing are up to scratch, riders and trainers will volunteer on their off days to get free schooling.

Use accommodations as a tool - The grand prize at our recent volunteer dinner was a weekend of free accommodations in our best accommodation. It also included the use of the facility for training for the weekend. This prize was transferable.

Get away from pizza as an incentive - In the 1980s pizza was king. Everyone liked it - but we have all moved on. Fruit, yogurt, cereals, and salads are now going to be considered much more appealing.

Buy practical gifts for volunteers - baseball hats, key rings, and pens have been replaced by blankets, water bottles, and gift cards - ask a sponsor (a local restaurant or tack store) to provide them.

Run all of the expenses of the event or the facility through one credit card - Pass the 3% cash back or other rewards to subsidize the volunteer retention pool.

Offer volunteers “house credits” - Provide a discount or credit against other products or events that your facility provides.

Once a year, have a dinner or give a party for your volunteers. Not only will this create community and loyalty, but in addition, it provides an opportunity to say, ‘thank you’. It will also be a source of ideas for the next year.

Introduce the concept of stipend volunteers - For senior volunteers, introduce another layer of management. These would be people that the volunteer coordinator can rely on – it also means another layer of people are invested in finding more volunteers.

Photo courtesy of Stable View.

It’s competitive out there and committed volunteers are going to ‘shop’ just as we all like to shop. We just need to make sure that we have the best differentiated storefront/products.

As with any business plan, what you are going to do for the three stakeholders is critical. There are shareholders (the P&L), there is the staff (volunteers) and then there are the clients (riders). Any commitments for the volunteers needs to be written down. This way, you are making promises to them and you in return hope that they will be committed to you and your event. As implied earlier, this all revolves around the volunteer coordinator - if they don't get it, you are probably wasting your time.

A lot of what’s written above will not relate to all facilities. However, in this world of improved footing and safer fences, it is also worthwhile to spend a little more time thinking through the new requirements for a volunteer in the 2020s - they are very different from the 1980s and 1990s.

About the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our sport, the unsung heroes, and the people who make it possible to keep the sport alive. In efforts to recognize the dedication, commitment, and hard work that volunteers put into eventing, USEA formed the Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP) in 2015. In 2017, an online management portal was designed for volunteers, organizers, and volunteer coordinators at EventingVolunteers.com (available as an app for iOS and Android).

Volunteer incentives include national and area recognition, year-end awards with ribbons, cash prizes, and trophies, a top ten USEA Volunteer leaderboard, and a Volunteer of the Year award which is given to the volunteer who tops the leaderboard by accumulating the most volunteer hours over the USEA competition year. Click hereto learn more about the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program.

The USEA would like to thank Sunsprite Warmbloods for sponsoring the Volunteer Incentive Program.

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