Volunteering and Theatre

So keeping with this theme of discovering the running of theatre, today I am going to be talking volunteers. A few years back I completed a course ‘managing volunteers’ with the emphasis on theatre, since then I have either managed volunteers or indeed been a volunteer helping in theatre or other organisation and have come to realise just how hard it can be keeping a balance sometimes between keep a volunteer happy and ensuring organisation continues to operate as it should.

Keeping a volunteer interested is one of the hardest things to achieve long term.  But with the right training, level of communication and of course reward schemes there should be no reason why you shouldn’t retain a volunteer for four or five years plus.

I have volunteered for many organisations over the years, not just theatre. So these are my top 5 tips to recruit and retain volunteers:

1. Be clear about objectives

First and foremost be consistent in your approach in the running of your organisation or at least look organised, know what’s going on and when it’s supposed to go on. There is nothing more off putting for anyone giving their time up free then to be keep being told plans have changed (whether that’s a week, a month, 6 months or more) or indeed not knowing of plans. There is nothing more irritating then not knowing where the organisation is going.

The principle is the same if you had paid staff, nobody will take your organisation seriously if they don’t know where you are going. This leads me to my point…

2. Communicate

Communication is so important though at the same time with GDPR that came in on the 25th May 2018 you have to careful on data usage. Making sure your database is always up to date is so important, there is nothing more annoying then receiving an email asking for help when you have moved 100 miles away, or putting your name down to ask and then never hearing a thing.

Have a monthly newsletter for volunteers, but make it interesting, maybe ask for volunteer input to the letter. It only needs to be the equivalent of one side of A4 paper.

The best way to communicate to make them feel involved is to meet with them. Have volunteer meetings every four to six weeks. It is important that communication is two way, therefore bringing them together periodically means they get to tell you things, talk with each other about problems they have. You will never get them all together in one room but you will get a good selection, maybe take it as an opportunity to share plans that the board have for the theatre.

But as volunteer’s feedback, always remember you are not obliged to put their thoughts into action if it doesn’t see fit. Also never fall into the notion that volunteers run the organisation, it’s the board and staff that run it, volunteers are there to help and that is all they put their name down for. So their feedback is welcome, but it’s not required. This sounds harsh, but the reality is that if you let the volunteers think they run the show then the organisation will lose its key and central story.

3. Training and Protocols

Theatre without a doubt is one of the most dangerous places to work so training should be paramount and it should never stop at just be about the role they are doing (Usher, steward, house manager, publicity). You are not paying these individuals but if you expect them to deal with the public and keep things safe and calm in the event of an emergency then you need to invest a little in them.

I haven’t yet been with a theatre that has actually physically taken volunteers through an emergency procedure; I have only ever been talked through it. And some theatres don’t have paid staff on site for every event because it’s not always possible, but this does not remove their responsibility as primary custodians of that venue.

Whatever level you manager volunteers at, either as a paid staff member or as a volunteer it is still your responsibility to validate and refresh that training. For example if you are letting one volunteer train another, which is perfectly acceptable as it is often that individual that will know the job best. But if you have asked for all tickets to be broken and stubs kept then you’ll need to ensure this is being done by the newer volunteers and make sure they know why.

Just because you have a volunteer organisation, this should not stop you from wanting to invest in the people who help you. Look out for individuals who really shine in the in their roles, maybe you could find opportunities for them to have proper professional training, as technicians, box office, publicity team. Their volunteer experience could the key step into the career they really want to  be in.

4. Review and Discipline

As a volunteer organisation you may think that formally reviewing the performance of your volunteers is not so important. But it is because it is the performance of your volunteers that reflect how your organisation is perceived from those outside. It can be the key to keeping some of them or an opportunity to get rid of some. Everybody needs some kind of validation and appraisal, volunteers are no different.

Unlike employees you don’t need to do this annually, maybe every couple of years or so. The Scout Association reviews their leaders once every 5 years. It is a chance for you to give them one to one time where they have your undivided attention, they may use it to air issues they think are present in the running of the organisation, you may want to spend time talking about something they did that has caught your attention, good or bad, that needs to be brought up. Talk about how you as an organisation could develop the individual, yes they maybe volunteers but if you look for ways to develop them they may stay longer, find better ways to help you.

On the other side of this coin is discipline when a volunteer does something wrong or crosses the line. There seems to be this fear that because they give their time free, reprimanding them will scare them off. The truth is that it quite the opposite, like a review, we all need to know when we have strayed off the path. And genuine volunteers really won’t mind being picked up on mistakes, in fact you are more likely to earn their respect. But this is where consistency comes in, if you reprimand one, and then you must reprimand all making the same mistake. It is the hardest parts of managing and enforce when working with volunteers but you should never put the reputation of your organisation in jeopardy or allow it be compromised in ay way.

It openly shows that your organisation has self respect and that is what will build your volunteer force alone.

5. Don’t forget to say thank you

Many people take up volunteering for the social side of thing, but this is often the hardest part to volunteering as you are so focuses on what has be done that getting to know the people who you are working with can go a miss, especially if you are working solo. There are times when you don’t hear from other volunteers for a few weeks maybe shifts don’t coincide often or you are off on holiday or they are sick.

As the organisation you can help this in a very subtle way, ensuring rotas are mixed as much as possible, organising volunteer social events, at the same time you will be making these individuals feel appreciated.

If you really want to make individuals feel special why not celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with them. Get someone to organise a card to be signed by as many people as possible.

As with the training look for those who are really keen to be involved and maybe pay for an excursion for them that ultimately benefits your organisation, maybe it’s to go look at another theatre to spend times with volunteers or learn how that theatre operated a particular part of their business.

Ultimately volunteering is about just giving time and the reward should be the satisfaction, the customers faces from the experience they have helped to create. But sometimes the reward can come in the thank you received from the organisation they are with.