July 16, 2011

Volunteers! (Guest Blog)

Today, I'm allowing an old (well, she's not that old) e-Pal to take over as a guest blogger.  So sit back, read and an enjoy!  Oh, and feel free to comment, as usual.

*  *  *

Foundation's Edge has to be one of the least enjoyable books I've ever wrestled with for book group—but Asimov, you will not defeat me!

Oh wait, wrong blog. 

Hi, I'm Laura Haywood-Cory. I ran my first convention in 1986, ChimeraCon VI on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

In the intervening twenty-five years, I've started up a convention, Trinoc-coN, presided over its Board of Directors, been con manager, assistant art director, low-level gopher, and more. In between, I co-founded a local sf club, attended other conventions, wrote some fanzines, got a job as an editor at a science fiction publishing house. Now I'm (mostly) retired from conrunning, though certain people ahem keep trying to pull me back in.

Today's topic is at the heart of all conventions: recruiting and retaining, happy volunteers. You can have all the pie-in-the-sky dreams about the Best Convention Ever, but without boots on the ground, it won't happen. If your pool of volunteers starts to feel ignored or taken for granted, they're going to walk, and you can't run your con without them.

So you’ve decided to start a convention. You and maybe a few of your wild-eyed friends got together one weekend and after too much tequila or whisky, decided that Running a Convention was the thing to do.

And now here you all are, in someone's living room, coming to the horrified realization that... you need help.

Possibly professional help, but definitely con-running help.

None of you know one end of a hotel contract from the other, the intricacies involved in running a good art show elude you, and everything you know about putting together a great costume contest would fit in a thimble.

Don't Panic.

You just need your first round of volunteers, your Con Committee (ConCom for short). This is the group that will get you from the post-hangover living room scene most of the way to having a con.

Assuming that you have friends, now is the time to call them.

You'll probably want That Friend Who Always Reads Every Hugo Nominee to be in charge of your literary programming.

That Friend Who Schmoozes Really Well should go with you when you talk to the hotel. Schmoozer—if reliable—can also be a good person to pick up out-of-town guests from the airport or train station.

Anal-Retentive Friend can look over the contract for you, help design a programming grid, and if s/he is good with language, can proofread flyers, other promotional material, and the program book.

And so on, until, your ConCom is complete.

The point is that you want to match people's skills and interests with the areas where they'll be most beneficial. Having people responsible for things they have no interest in or aptitude for is a wide open invitation to all around misery. The person stuck with a job they don’t enjoy will be unhappy and ineffective, and everyone else will get stressed out and frustrated cleaning up their mess.

Now that you have a ConCom, your next challenge is finding the much larger cadre of boots-on-the-ground volunteers: ones who will work at the registration desk, the ones who will print out flyers and take them to other conventions, the ones who will staff the con suite, the ones who will run security at the con, the ones who will set up and stay with the art show, etc. The folks who will do all the unglamorous behind the scenes work that make a con a success.

In dealing with your volunteers, always remember: volunteer-run cons are a labor of love. We're all doing this because we want an event that we'd like to attend, so that we can meet and interact with our fellow fans and with the creative types—authors, media guests, artists, gamers and game designers, scientists, etc.—whose work we all enjoy.

Nobody’s getting rich, or even paid, so everyone who's working on the con has to feel like their contributions are important. Otherwise, they’ll find something better to do with their time.

So work on that from the very start…starting with staff meetings. Listen to that still-wet-behind-the ears gopher; don't brush off suggestions with "we've always done it this way" or somesuch, and allow and encourage questions and suggestions.

A mainstay in your volunteer reward strategy should be to make sure all of your volunteers actually have some free time over the weekend to relax and attend the con. Find out if there's a person or event they'd really like to see, and do your damndest to make sure their volunteering schedule allows them to attend.

There are other standard rewards. Free memberships in exchange for working X number of hours is a fairly common reward for volunteering at a con. You work a certain number of hours, or run a certain number of games, still get to attend the event, and don't have to buy a membership.

Unfortunately, you may run into a problem here: folks who’ll sign up to work enough to get the free membership, but then reneg on their commitment. This happened to Trinoc-coN. Our solution was to switch to a membership reimbursement policy: you paid for a membership up front, and got a refund once you had put in the minimum number of hours.

Free T-shirts are another way to thank volunteers for all that unpaid effort. In addition, they are free, targeted advertising for your con (after all, the people wearing them are likely to hang out with other people who share their interests).

The end of con, Dead Dog party is another way to reward volunteers for their hard work. Trinoc-coN would solicit goodies from the guests and local companies, and have a drawing at the party to give them away. Everyone who made their volunteer hours got a ticket for a chance to win some cool stuff.

ve 'deallow and encourage questions and suggestions good about what theif they don'tmentolicy: you paid for a membership up fronI'm sure I've missed some points, and I welcome feedback.

Thanks to James for temporarily handing over his blog to me; now back to him.


  1. Nice post. I like the idea of getting stuff to give to the volunteers as a raffle.

  2. Thanks, and thanks for giving me space to have my say. :)

  3. Good article and a great overview of the "Con Volunteer" thing. Now let's see an article on how to get rid of the annoying volunteer and the inflated ego volunteer. For the most part you can get rid of the IE volunteer by telling them to run their own con. That's how MACE started...uh... I mean that is how some other cons have stated.

  4. Oh law... how to fire people who work for free. Sometimes it has to be done, but when I've seen it and had to do it, it's never pretty. Sometimes you just have to sit down with the person one-on-one and say, "This isn't working, and we need you to do X, Y, and Z differently." And then if they don't, you have to explain that their services are no longer needed.

    It sounds much simpler written out like that, doesn't it? In practice, the few times I had to do it, there were tears and temper tantrums and hissy fits galore. And I'm not sure how to have avoided all of it.

    This brings up another good point, one that some people still apparently haven't learned: Praise in public, criticize in private.